Not easy to develop a national league in U.S.

WHAT is the true significance of the advance of the United States in this World Cup? Does it mean as their coach Bruce Arena would have us believe that the supposedly lesser teams have caught up the major players, or has there simply been what you might call a general lack of intent? Further to that, will the success of the USA team help professional soccer get a firmer hold in the country?

At present, the so called Major League Soccer is anything but; just 10 clubs, five of which are owned by the same billionaire, Phil Anschutz; something unthinkable in any major footballing country. 52 years ago, in Belo Horizonte, the USA inflicted on England the most humiliating defeat in their history, beating 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup a team which included the likes of Tom Finney, Stan Mortensen, Billy Wright and Wilf Mannion. "This is all we need to get the game going in the States," said the USA's Scottish coach, Bill Jeffery, but the great American public simply turned over and went to sleep.

How much has changed since then? A very great deal but ironically, not in favour of professional soccer. Even if the present American team had swept on and actually won this World Cup you wonder how much would have happened at the professional level. There were days when smart Alec critics described soccer as an un-American activity. This is the age of the so called Soccer Moms, in which tens of thousands of boys, girls, women and a good many men play the game. But where is the spin-off? Either in the supply of first class players for the ever shrinking number of pro clubs or even of spectators? My view before the USA put on the World Cup of 1994 was that it would be a colossal success, but would do nothing but harm to the future of the programme there, which had run into the sand since the halcyon days of the New York Cosmos in the 1970s. A team which funded heavily by Warner Communications and the Ertegun brothers of Atlantic Records could boast the likes of Pele, desperate to make up for the money he had lost in a collapsing company, Franz Beckenbauer, who spurned the German 1978 World Cup team to play for Cosmos, Holland's Johan Neeskens, and the Italian international centre forward Giorgio Chinaglia once a Swansea Town reserve who later became President of the Cosmos.

Few know that the USA actually entered the first World Cup in 1930 in Uruguay and actually got to the semi-finals, with 3-0 wins over Belgium and Paraguay in the qualifying pool. Reality intervened when they lost 6-1 to Argentina, but they had made a substantial mark. The team was what you might call the fall out of an attempt in the 1920s headed by the Bethlehem Steel Company to import soccer to the States, notably in the shape of British professionals who included the celebrated right winger Alec Jackson, one of the 1928 Wembley Wizards of Scotland who thrashed England 5-1.

The game didn't take then as it hasn't really taken now, but enough good pros were left behind to form the 1930 team, big men nicknamed by the French players The Shot Putters. But the 1950 team which beat England was a rag tag and bobtail affair skippered by a Scottish right half Eddie McIlvenny, who'd just been given a free transfer by Wrexham. The only goal was scored by the head of a Haitian centre forward Larry 'Joe' Gaetjaens later alas murdered it was reported by the Tons Tons Macoute.

The predictable trouble with the '94 World Cup was that though it would surely be a success, as indeed it was, it would queer the pitch of the hoped for resurrected proleague. In the words of an old song, How You Gonna Keep Em Down on the Farm, After They've seen Paree. Having seen football's best the great American sporting public, used to the best in every sport, were not likely to be enraptured by second rate soccer played by ageing foreign pros and limited college footballers.

College soccer; this has been another problem. Several of the current American side, not least the powerful centre forward with the Mohican haircut Clint Mathis, scorer of the shock goal against the South Koreans, played on soccer scholarships at college, but by and large four years of college soccer has severely curtailed the progress of potential pro players of quality when they should have been learning the game at an altogether higher and more demanding level. The U.S. Soccer Association has subsequently introduced an ambitious programme whereby young hopefuls can go straight from high school into professional soccer but by skipping college they are taking a risk, hoping there'd be a career to be made in a fragile pro American game.

Yet what a magnificent show the Americans put up in this World Cup; bar the debacle against the Poles who, pitifully pedestrian in their first two games and with nothing left to play for, belatedly put in some quicker younger players, scored twice in the opening five minutes and won with some ease. I was at the game against Portugal when the Americans astounded an inept Portuguese defence with three goals in the opening 36 minutes, though they ran out of steam in the closing stages when the Portuguese could well have got an equaliser. Against the South Koreans it was the Americans who were forced on to the back foot from the start, scored a sudden breakaway goal but in the final stages were again desperately defending and were enormously lucky to escape defeat when that point blank Korean chance was cataclysmically sent over the bar.

This was a somewhat odd feature of the American performance in general. They were praised in some quarters for their stamina which seemed impeccable in their fine display against Germany when they were cruelly robbed on a penalty. Yet against Portugal and South Korea that stamina seemed badly wanting.

It was shameful that, after such a splendid display, they should lose to Germany. After Germany's saviour Oliver Kahn had saved yet again the ball was definitely going over the line when Torsten Frings kept it out with his hand. A clear penalty. And talking of penalties, Brad Friedel in the USA goal saved two of them during the tournament and though oddly enough he had scarcely to make a save against the Germans, time and again came to the rescue of his team, with agility all the more laudable in so big a man.

Much of the football the Americans played especially against Portugal and Germany was of the highest quality. Little Claudio Reyna of course, the hub of the midfield, has rich experience with the likes of Rangers and Sunderland. But up front Landon Donovan, one of the various members of the team who failed to make an impact in Germany itself, was magnificently penetrative, quick and effective. While Tony Sanneh, who does play regularly for Nuremberg, excelled as a centre back always ready to go up in attack and so nearly able to equalise with that late header.

To be honest, he had at times tended to look vulnerable when deployed at right back, not least when against the Koreans he stood like a statue allowing his opponent to stroll past him to set up what should have been the Korean winner. Immense credit must go too to Bruce Arena for the transformation he's worked in a team whose win against Mexico - who seemed to be flying after their performance against Italy - was especially impressive.

Yes, the American achievement was owed in no small part to the failings of their foes but the team's performance deserves vast appreciation. What now?

Alas, it seems that the old, old problems of developing an economically successful national league are still to be overcome.