IN MAY of 1998 the U.S. Soccer Federation unveiled an audacious blueprint, dubbed Project 2010, to turn the nation into a serious contender by the 2010 World Cup. There would be a new commitment, backed by $50 million from Nike, to find and develop promising young players and funnel them into competitive soccer at an early age, as is typical in Europe and South America. Less than a month after that announcement, those far-reaching ambitions looked absurd, as the U.S. fell feebly to Germany, Iran and Yugoslavia at the World Cup in France, scoring just one goal. � Since then the progress has been fitful. After a shock run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup, Bruce Arena's team crashed out of the tournament in '06, and the Olympic squad failed to advance past the first round in Beijing. So as the U.S. began the final round of qualifying last week for South Africa in 2010—its self-imposed target date for global respectability—the questions remained: How far has it come in 11 years? Is Project 2010 on track? Can the U.S. compete consistently with the likes of Brazil, Italy and Germany on the sport's biggest stage?
The U.S. program is quite different from the one Arena left in 2006—and that's a good thing. Arena was brash and loose and relished attention. His successor, Bob Bradley, a Princeton grad (and coach of the Tigers for 12 years), is a cerebral preparation freak who runs a tight ship, with strict curfews and two-a-day practices. "If there's one word to describe him, it's intense," says right back Frankie Hejduk, a 14-year veteran of the national team. "He knows the ins and outs of the game technically, tactically, and he's trying to instill that in us as much as he can."
And while Arena relied heavily on veterans to drive his team, especially toward the end of his tenure, Bradley is gambling on young players in prominent roles. Two such up-and-comers lined up next to each other in central midfield for the qualifier against Mexico on Feb. 11, and Bradley is directly responsible for launching the professional careers of both: Sacha Kljestan, 23, and Bradley's own son Michael, 21. (Bob coached each of them during their respective rookie seasons in MLS.) The younger Bradley, who now plays for Borussia M�nchengladbach of the German first division, dazzled in the 2--0 victory in Columbus, scoring both goals, making pretty, short passes and breaking up the Mexican attack by cutting off the passing lanes. Kljestan, who plays for MLS's Chivas USA, also contributed on both sides of the ball—though he was nowhere near as electrifying as in his hat-trick performance in a January friendly against Sweden.
Both players had been hailed as stars in the making, but under Bob Bradley their time has come sooner rather than later: Despite their youth, they have a combined 40 appearances for the U.S. And they reflect the demeanor of the coach. "They have energy, and they're willing to fight," says Hejduk. "They don't take any crap in the midfield, they tackle hard and they play simple."
The commitment to kids doesn't end there. Under Bradley a record number of players have received call-ups to the national team in an ever-expanding pool of talent, with striker Jozy Altidore (age 19), defender Jonathan Bornstein (24) and midfielders Maurice Edu (22) and Jos� Francisco Torres (21) likely to be central figures in the run to 2010.
Still, Bradley's teams have yet to win a meaningful match against topflight competition other than rival Mexico, which was undermanned in Columbus and failed to present its normal challenge. In the 2007 Copa Am�rica, Bradley's inexperienced and experimental lineup was severely outclassed by Argentina, Paraguay and Colombia. In fact, during his 2 � years the U.S. has only one significant victory against tough competition in a major tournament: the thrilling 2--1 comeback against Mexico in the final of the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup, which featured a game-winning golazo from another young American, Benny Feilhaber, 24.
The tests will be coming this year. The 2007 Gold Cup title earned the U.S. a trip to this summer's Confederations Cup in South Africa, a major warmup for 2010. If the Americans somehow survive a group that includes South American champion Brazil and reigning World Cup champion Italy, they could meet European champ and world No. 1 Spain in the knockout stages.
Beyond that, the U.S. has nine more World Cup qualifiers through October, as the region's six remaining teams contend for three automatic berths. (The fourth-place team will get a playoff against South America's No. 5.) That includes an August match in Mexico, which will almost certainly be at Mexico City's hostile 105,000-seat Azteca Stadium, where the U.S. has never won in nine tries. It may be the hardest test in the most crucial year U.S. soccer has faced—one that will throw its youngsters directly into the fire.
Bradley, 50, admits the team is far from perfect and that he has plenty of work to do. "There's so many things that need to get better," he says. "It's the whole package." How he handles his young troops will go a long way toward figuring out if Project 2010 was farsighted or laughably far-fetched.