Thirty-two teams will meet in Germany beginning June 9. Can the U.S. emerge as one of soccer's global powers? That will depend on the leadership of four young players who learned how to win together as teens
Fueled by the confidence they gained on the under-17 team in 1999, (clockwise from bottom left) Donovan, Onyewu, Convey and Beasley now face their greatest challenge.
By Grant Wahl
In early 1999, during the bleak days following its last-place finish in World Cup '98, U.S. Soccer began a grand experiment. Wanting to close the gap with the rest of the world, the federation invited the nation's top 20 players under 17 to move to Bradenton, Fla., where they would train and take high school classes in a full-time residency program at the IMG sports academy founded by tennis guru Nick Bollettieri. The goals were far from modest: to contend for that year's Under-17 World Cup championship and to begin laying the groundwork for winning the World Cup itself by 2010. Nor would it be cheap: more than $1.5 million, an amount never before spent on a U.S. youth team -- or, for that matter, on any under-17 national team in the world.
Among those who stepped through the doors of the Bollettieri Academy in January '99 were four players of varying backgrounds who now constitute the Golden Generation of American soccer. Landon Donovan, a shy, lightning-quick forward, had grown up speaking Spanish with his Latino teammates on the soccer fields of Southern California. DaMarcus Beasley, a gregarious African-American midfielder, had turned his back on basketball in hoops-mad Fort Wayne, Ind. Oguchi Onyewu, a hulking defender from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., was the son of Nigerian immigrants. And Bobby Convey, a flashy midfielder from Philadelphia, had followed his sister, Kelly, a former All-America at Penn State, into the sport.
Seven years later all four players will have vital roles when the U.S. commences its World Cup quest on June 12 -- a remarkable feat given the inexact science of identifying and cultivating soccer talent. Consider: No roster in Germany will include more players who have graduated from an Under-17 World Cup team than the U.S., with its class of '99 quartet. "You never know how guys are going to pan out," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena. "Landon and DaMarcus were kind of can't-miss players, but with Gooch and Bobby there was certainly some doubt. We saw those guys really start to move forward over the last year or two."
All four have taken different paths from Bradenton to Germany, establishing pro careers in the U.S. (Donovan), the Netherlands (Beasley), Belgium (Onyewu) and England (Convey). Yet they share a belief, forged during their days at the academy, that the U.S. can hang with the world's best anytime, anywhere. "When we were with the under-17s, we didn't lose many games," says Beasley. "We beat Argentina, beat Germany, beat Holland, beat England, beat all the powerhouses except Brazil. And that swagger that we had carries over to the senior national team. Four years ago the big thing for me and Landon was that we didn't fear anybody, and we still feel the same way."
When Arena inserted 20-year-olds Donovan and Beasley into the starting lineup for the 2002 World Cup opener against Portugal -- a 3-2 upset that set the tone for the U.S.'s stunning run to the quarterfinals -- he did so partly because neither had been scarred by the failures of '98. Against an even tougher first-round group this time (the Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana), their fearlessness will have to spread deep into the roster. "Realistically, do I think we'll win the World Cup? No," says Donovan. "But if we get out of our group and play any team, no matter who they are, can we beat them? Yes. The issue is how many guys really believe that. I know that Beaz and Goochi and Bobby really do."
They developed their chemistry during countless hours on the field and around the strictly monitored campus at Bradenton. (Donovan and Convey were roommates upstairs; Beasley and Onyewu shared downstairs quarters.) It was the sort of soccer immersion that prospects their age were getting in the youth systems of top clubs around the world. "Everything revolved around soccer," says Onyewu. "At that point we were like professionals. We had matches against MLS teams and beat a lot of them. We knew if we could compete against grown pros, there was no reason we couldn't have a good showing at the world championship."
By the time they arrived in New Zealand for the U-17 tournament, the baby Yanks had gone 20 games without a loss and saw no reason that they couldn't win the whole thing. Looking ridiculous with bleached-blond hair, Donovan and Beasley attacked with abandon, leading the team to first place in its group and then a 3-2 quarterfinal elimination of Mexico. Even though the American team finished fourth after being ousted by Australia in the semifinals on penalty kicks, Donovan and Beasley won the Golden and Silver Balls, respectively, as the tournament's top two individual players. No U.S. men's soccer side has ever had a better showing in a world championship. "Until that point people had never seen an American team play soccer like that," Donovan says. "Throughout the tournament you heard that people were talking about us."
These days Donovan professes to pay a lot less attention to what foreign observers are saying about his game. Famously ambivalent about playing in Europe, he rejoined MLS in 2005 after spending three frustrating months with Bayer Leverkusen -- his second unsuccessful stint with the German power that signed him to a four-year, $400,000 deal in 1999. Yet no matter how much the Los Angeles Galaxy star builds the game Stateside or how many MLS Cups he wins (three and counting), the conventional wisdom abroad is that he'll have to stand out in a World Cup played on the Continent to shake the "European failure" tag.
"I don't think of it that way, and that's because I'm content with my life," says Donovan, who's already the third-leading scorer in U.S. national team history (with 25 goals in 81 appearances). "There's still this reluctance around the world to admit that we're any good at soccer, so from that perspective there's nothing I'd rather do than just shove it up everybody's a-- in Germany. But if we don't do well or don't meet other people's expectations, I couldn't care less what those people think. We'd have enough disappointment to deal with."
Beasley, by contrast, says he's happy playing in Europe. Since leaving the Chicago Fire for Dutch power PSV Eindhoven in 2004, the speedy winger has improved his crosses and technical abilities, and last year he became the first American to appear in a Champions League semifinal. "When you play at a big club, there's a lot of pressure to win every game," Beasley says. "In MLS it's not like that. If we lose at PSV, the first six pages of the newspaper will be about how bad we were." Though Beasley hasn't played well for the U.S. in recent friendlies, Arena is counting on him and Donovan to provide a maturity that wasn't required of them in 2002.
Four years ago, as Onyewu watched his former U-17 teammates on television, he asked himself, If I played with those guys, why can't I be at that level? Now the agile 6'4", 210-pound central defender is poised to become the U.S.'s breakout star of the Cup, which could lead to a lucrative transfer from his Belgian team, Standard de Liége, to one of Europe's big clubs. "Gooch has fantastic physical dimensions for a center back at the international level," says Arena -- and against towering forwards like the Czech Republic's 6'8" Jan Koller and Italy's 6'4" Luca Toni, Onyewu will need them.
The key for Onyewu will be to avoid the red-card ejections (three in Belgium alone this season) that he believes are largely attributable to his oversized frame. "If you take two identical tackles, one by me and one by a player a foot shorter than me, the referee will give me a card just because mine seems a lot harder," says Onyewu, who played two seasons at Clemson before heading to Europe. "Right now I'm trying to find that medium, where I use my body to my advantage, and it doesn't work against me." He struck that balance in a 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Mexico last September, muscling striker Jared Borgetti off his game in a watershed performance.
Just as Onyewu is learning how to use his size, Convey has begun to maximize his speed and technical skills on the left flank. A year younger than his three former U-17 teammates, Convey wore Rec-Specs at the youth level to protect damaged optic nerves that still cause blurring in all but the peripheral vision of his left eye. (His U-17 coach, John Ellinger, called him "the reverse Clark Kent" because he turned into a superhero only after he put on his glasses.) After a difficult debut campaign at England's Reading in 2004-05, Convey played a leading role in the club's promotion to the Premier League this season. "I'd signed a two-year contract in England, and I wasn't just going to quit after a year," says Convey, who enters the World Cup in perhaps the top form of any U.S. player. "This was the best season I've had as a professional, and to get to a World Cup and help my team get to the Premiership has been an awesome feeling."
Advancing in the World Cup this summer will be a challenge of an even higher magnitude for the Americans. During the past four years they have maintained a slim advantage over their most bitter rival (Mexico), added several promising young players (Onyewu, Convey and attackers Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey) and breezed through World Cup qualifying. Yet it's also worth noting that the U.S. hasn't beaten a global heavyweight besides Mexico since the 2002 World Cup; that it could play well in Germany and still fail to advance; that the main lesson of 2006 could be how remarkable it was that the team reached the quarterfinals four years ago.
Let's be honest: On paper, the Americans are looking at three games and out. Of course, that was the case in 2002 as well. For members of the Golden Generation, the bad old days of American soccer never happened.