?Take the next step in player development. The idea of bypassing NCAA soccer to develop elite players came up, oddly enough, at one of college sports' sacred grounds, Legion Field in Birmingham, where former U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg watched Argentina spank the U.S. 3-1 during the 1996 Olympic under-23 tournament. "Their college kids are better than our college kids," Rothenberg remembers saying, knowing full well that the Argentines hadn't gone to college at all. (Instead, a handful were playing in Italy's elite Serie A.)
Thus sprang the idea for Project 2010, the USSF's bold plan to put the U.S. in contention to win the 2010 World Cup. Since then the onus for grooming prospects outside college has rested jointly with MLS (whose Project-40 lets a limited number of elite players join MLS teams while earning college tuition) and the USSF, which established a full-time residency camp for the under-17 national team, which in turn produced Beasley and Donovan. But in order to widen the talent search, development—in the form of youth and reserve squads—should become the domain of MLS teams. "That's how they do it around the world," U.S. coach Bruce Arena says. "If it doesn't become a reality, the league is never going to make it."
?Get the stadiums built. "It's our biggest challenge," says Garber, who hopes five soccer-only venues will go up in the next five years. Having 25,000-seat facilities would allow MLS teams to set their own schedules, control their own revenue streams and create a demand for tickets that doesn't exist in 75,000-seat NFL hulks. Lamar Hunt, who built the Columbus stadium, the MLS's first soccer-only facility, says he visited every World Cup venue to get ideas for constructing a stadium for his Kansas City Wizards. Saying it couldn't afford it, the city of McKinney, Texas, dropped its plans to build a publicly funded stadium for the Dallas Burn earlier this year. Perhaps after this World Cup, cities like McKinney will take a longer look at MLS.
?Continue investing, but do it wisely. All of the steps above will require millions of dollars, most of them presumably coming from Phil Anschutz, the reclusive Denver billionaire who owns six of MLS's 10 teams. It was Anschutz who brokered the $40 million deal earlier this year in which MLS bought the U.S.'s English-language TV rights for the 2002 World Cup, the next Women's World Cup (beginning September 2003 in China) and the 2006 World Cup (which will be held in Germany and aired in the U.S. during more viewer-friendly daytime hours). "Our investors have been willing to sink a lot of money into soccer," says Gazidis. "If we believe something makes sense, we'll do it." Now, however, as a result of this World Cup and the possible expenses involved in keeping top players, "we may have to face some tough decisions earlier than we anticipated," Garber says.
?Compete internationally as much as possible. Since fans enjoy World Cup-style rivalries, MLS should use U.S. soccer's newfound respect to finagle invitations to the Copa Libertadores, the South American club tournament that is the Western Hemisphere's version of the European Champions League. (If Mexican teams are allowed to play, the U.S. certainly deserves entry after eliminating the Tricolores from the World Cup.)
?Fight harder for media coverage. The biggest newspapers in six of the 10 MLS markets- Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Kansas City and San Jose—didn't send a reporter overseas to cover the World Cup. "Hopefully, respect for the sport will get better after this," says Arena. "The league's had such a difficult time getting good exposure. I hope the media recognizes that soccer has a great future in this country?'
Indeed, as the U.S. bus pulled into the team's hotel in Seoul in the wee hours last Saturday morning and the players sang My Way on the vehicle's karaoke machine, it was hard not to look forward to 2006. Though Arena hasn't yet signed a new contract, it's likely that he'll be back, leading a team composed largely of MLS players who are younger but more experienced than most of this year's squad. You never know who might start in Germany. Beasley and Donovan were 16-year-old high school students during World Cup '98.
For four years the U.S. players read and heard plenty about their last-place finish in 1998. Let the record show that in World Cup 2002 these Yanks finished eighth, ahead of defending champ France, Argentina, Italy and Portugal—four of the pretournament favorites. They lasted just as long as fellow quarterfinalists Spain and England, two of Europe's elite teams. And they came within two games of the World Cup final. "People who say the U.S. will never win the World Cup don't know what they're talking about," says Beasley, a smile creasing his callow mug. "It will happen one day, and I will laugh at Europe when it does."