However lightly Germany, Brazil and England treat the next 13 days of football at some of the great American stadiums, much is at stake for the US team and the organisers of the World Cup. 'You know what the US public is like,' Roy Wegerle, the Coventry striker now an American citizen, says. 'They don't want to see losers. If we're a winning team, they'll back us. If we're not, it'll just continue as it has been for a long, long time. It's important that we do well in this tournament.'
The team is staying at the Holiday Inn. Across the road is Yale, around which the players have been seen to wander with suitably admiring expressions. 'Bora (Milutinovic, the head coach) is a psychologist as much as a tactician,' an associate says, and perhaps locating the 30 players so close to a centre of academic excellence is part of the motivating process. But as Weg
erle says, the US is 'still seen as a second-class footballing nation' elsewhere, and time is running out for the World Cup hosts in their efforts to become more than a 'Welcome' doormat for the great powers next summer.
There is one crucial anomaly. The US has a national team with a grand design, but no league structure feeding through club players. All last week, men like Wegerle and John Harkes of Sheffield Wednesday were flying in from Europe to join the home-based contingent. Thomas Dooley (who plays for Kaiserslauten), Frank Klopas (AEK Athens), Tab Ramos (Real Betis, Spain) Ernie Stewart (Willem II in Holland), Peter Woodring (SV Hamburg) and Eric Wynalda (Saar
brucken) are the other non-American based players in the 22-man squad.
'There are two parts to this team. There's the influence of players from the United States, then there's the influence of players based in Europe,' Peter Vermes, one of the USA's most experienced professionals, says. 'Bora has got to hold those two sides together. Is it the right chemistry? I don't think even he knows, but I do know he hasn't got very long.'
Purists will be glad to learn that Milutinovic is not a proponent of sky
rocket football. He led Mexico in the 1986 World Cup and took charge of Costa Rica just 90 days before Italia '90, guiding them to famous wins over Scotland (1-0) and Sweden (2-1). Ironically, though, Milutinovic's determination to uphold the noble art of passing is casting an even brighter light on the difficulties of integrating so many disparate players and styles.
'He's from the old Yugoslavia. He's always played football,' Wegerle says. 'The style is to build up slowly, which is difficult for me to adjust to because playing in England you're looking for direct balls played quickly. In training here I'm looking for those direct balls and it's being kept at the back for long periods. The way it's going in England, players are getting fitter, bigger, stron
ger, faster. But this man plays a more South American style, which someone like me has to adjust to.'
Milutinovic has experimented in bewildering numbers as he attempts to determine which is the USA's best team. Many of the players here barely know each other, though the establishment of a national training centre (costing dollars 3.3m) in Mission Viejo, California, is helping to engender a spirit of unity. 'Whether we had a good result or a bad one, we couldn't get together the next day to analyse it,' Brian Quinn, Belfast-born and once of Everton, says. 'Players would disperse throughout the United States.'
The goalkeeper Tony Meola (ex- Brighton and Watford) makes the same point more colourfully. 'People don't know what it is to live in a hotel most of your life,' he says. 'When I get
home, I forget what normal life is like. I go to call a buddy who lives down the block and I dial nine to get an outside line.' Meola says he was away from his family on average 250 days of the year.
Any England players inclined to groan at having to participate in the US Cup '93 when they would rather be drinking cocktails in Cancun might be surprised to learn that the American players are scarcely better off. After playing Germany at Soldier Field, Chicago, next Sunday, the USA travel to Ecuador for another tournament before contesting the incredibly long- winded Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) championship. 'After that I'll be straight back to run my bollocks off for Coventry,' Wegerle says.
And yet the portents for this mid-
summer irrelevance are good. When the USA play Germany, US television will show the national side live for the first time. There will be no commercials during playing time, a fact that ABC are surprisingly sanguine about. Television people here tell you that the experiment in ad-free sport is producing new ideas about how products can be promoted without spoiling the coverage. A clock bearing logos in the corner of the screen is one possibility (in American television land, that's progress).
Even the tickets are selling well. Brazil v England at RFK Stadium in Washington could be watched by 50,000 spectators (likewise England v Germany in Detroit). Much hyperbole is in the air. 'The quality of the teams we have is basically the semi-finals of the World Cup,' Sunil Gunlati, chair
man of US Cup'93, says. With England there? Gunlati must have missed the Norway game.
League football has failed once already in the US. This time, they say, it will be different (they would, wouldn't they?). In the gush of encouraging statistics emitted by the World Cup organisers is the claim that 12 million youngsters under the age of 18 are playing the game, and to be fair to the number crunchers, those figures are supported by professionals like Vermes, who has played 60 times for the national side.
'What's amazing is that when the National American Soccer League (deceased) was big here there wasn't much of a youth programme,' Vermes says. 'But since it's folded the youth system has boomed. Major League baseball is having nightmares because they've lost
a generation of kids to soccer and basketball. Those two sports have just taken off. Soccer has got to be the leading sport among youth in the US.
'The trouble is that when they get to High School, every kid has a dream of being a professional athlete, and when they see there's no professional league in soccer they jump to another sport. The professional league has to come (1995 is the likely starting date) because it was one of the stipulations laid down by Fifa before we were given the World Cup. The trouble, of course, is that the United States is so big. You have all these different entities, and they all do their own thing.'
Back on the training pitch at Yale, the players charged with carrying the message to America are undergoing a typically tough workout under Milutinovic, a Serb who lost both his parents in the War. The biographical details give a clue to the collegiate, middle-class complexion of the US- based half of the squad. Yari Allnutt, a defender, has a double major in business communications and Spanish. Desmond Armstrong, who has played for Santos of Brazil, is 'an accomplished illustrator' about to earn a degree in English. Alexi Lalas is in a rock group, 'The Gypsies', and Milutinovic had to tell him to have his hair cut.
The names are misleading. Lalas is from Michigan, not Minsk. The American authorities are eager to correct the impression that the Zola Budd route to citizenship has been offered to talented players. Despite the surnames, the majority of the US squad were either born there or can claim American parentage. Even the South African-born Wegerle, who was given his passport two years ago, went to the US as a college student two decades ago.
So much for the politics, but what of the USA's chances of winning over a television audience to whom the 0-0 draw is anathema? What chance, for that matter, the US Cup '93 carrying any meaning even in Europe?
Wegerle has either learnt his lines well or is genuinely optimistic. 'We played in this tournament last year when the Republic of Ireland, Italy and Portugal came over, and we won it,' he says. 'People said our opponents weren't really bothered about it. But this time the countries coming here have to be bothered because they're playing towards the World Cup. Particularly the England boys after Norway. They'll be playing for their places, so it's not as if they can come out here and coast around. Besides which, teams hate losing to the US. When the Republic and Portugal were beaten by us last year they were gutted.'
There is much talk, too, of formlines and yardsticks. 'The tournament will enable us to see how far we've come since Italy (the 1990 World Cup) and how far we've got to go in the next year,' Wegerle says. Vermes says that the next 10 days will answer two questions: 'How far we've come and how far we need to go. Don't forget that over the last five years we've been a part-time team doing very well against some big teams.'
There is, though, barely concealed anxiety among some of the players. The coming and going of so many individuals from so many parts of the footballing world has created a yearning for a settled team. 'I know he's got to try people out, but pretty soon he's going to have to come up with his best 11,' one said. Milutinovic has used more than 60 players since taking control in March 1991, and the fact that all contracts are up for renewal in October (the US-based players are employed by US Soccer) is a particular source of nervousness.
Yale is a fitting backdrop to all this. The team in search of a tradition, of roots in the American sporting soil. The Brazilians are in town, and American newspapers are starting to carry ever lengthier football stories out of a vague sense that a bigger, global expedition is on its way. 'As far as the US viewing public is concerned,' Wegerle says, 'all the attention will be focused on the US team.
'If we don't do well, they'll soon be on our backs.'
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