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Bob Ryan

US men’s soccer team should be better by now

It has been more than 24 years since Paul Caligiuri’s left-footed looper got past the Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper to send the United States to its first World Cup since 1950.

It will soon be 20 years since Team USA was more than reasonably competitive in a 1-0 loss to eventual champion Brazil in Palo Alto, Calif.

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So, why aren’t we better?

After all this time, we are just OK. It might not be The Biggest Sports Story In The Recorded History Of Mankind if we were to win the 2014 World Cup, but it would be among ’em. If we did win, several million people around the globe would have the Big One as soon as the referee blew the whistle to end that championship game.

How much time do we need to become a legitimate world power? We keep acting as if soccer/football was first played on these here shores an hour and a half ago, but the fact is there was a Little League soccer program in my hometown of Trenton, N.J., in the ’50s. The term “Soccer Mom” came into popular usage a long time ago.

Some people are borderline apoplectic because coach Jurgen Klinsmann spoke an obvious truth the other day when he said that Americans shouldn’t be thinking about winning the World Cup this year. He was simply being realistic. It would be like the Ohio Valley Conference or Big Sky champion winning the NCAA basketball title.

How about we just win a game? That’s only happened four times during our previous six trips to the World Cup since 1950. And in case you haven’t been paying attention — a guarantee for far too many — our chances of winning a solitary game aren’t very good. Our foes in group play are Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. If that doesn’t constitute the infamous Group of Death for us, then it is, at the very least, the Group of Intensive Care.

I wish we were better. I wish we were truly competitive on the world scene. I wish we could be lumped with the favorites. I wish it would be a given that, along with such luminaries as Brazil, Argentina, Germany, and Spain, people would have to accept parity from the Americans. But it’s just not so. One Vegas oddsmaker has us at 100-1. That’s about right.

The most significant evidence pointing to our disappointing level of play is the presence on our final roster of seven dual-citizenship players. Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, John Brooks, and Julian Green are German-raised lads for whom English is a second language. Joining them as dual-citizenship members of our squad are Mix Diskerud, who is Norwegian, and Aron Johannsson, who is Icelandic.

I am not going all Tea Party on you. These seven players are entirely legit by the rules, and I welcome them. It’s the international way. As far back as 1994, we had Thomas Dooley on our team. Dooley was German-raised. He joined our team speaking no English. As recounted in George Vecsey’s excellent book, “Eight World Cups,” Dooley was observed prior to his first “friendly” (a match with no tournament implications) “in the gift shop of his Washington hotel . . . he was having trouble buying postcards and stamps.” However, “Dooley was chatting in English within weeks.”

As will, I am sure, our current dual citizens. But that’s not the point.

The point is that Coach Klinsmann obviously feel he needs them on his team. Six World Cup cycles after our foray into the official soccer Big Time, slightly more than 30 percent of our roster is comprised of players whose soccer experience lies completely outside the American influence. Other countries may have an occasional dual-citizenship player, but no one else with anything approaching our population base is so desperate to find high-level purely native players.

I find this distressing. I understand that America has the largest sports smorgasbord table in the world — and it isn’t even close. Well, there’s China, but that’s completely different because in that country an astonishing percentage of their athletes are conscripted or manufactured. That’s a whole other story. Here, fortunately, it remains a matter of choice, and the fact is that not enough of our elite athletes have chosen to play soccer.

It was true 20 years ago, and it’s true now. If a reasonable percentage of our midsized (by our standards) athletes; i.e., those 6 feet 3 inches to 6-8 or 6-9, had elected to become soccer players, we would have a fearsome team. The example I used 20 years ago was Scottie Pippen. The example I can cite today is LeBron James. But we needn’t raise the bar that high. There are hundreds more fitting that physical description who would suffice.

I don’t know if Team USA is being held back by internal politics or perhaps not enough good grass-roots coaching. I just believe we have more than enough first-rate athletes to go around, that even with the popularity of football, baseball, basketball, and hockey, there should be enough young men who can fall in love with soccer and who would have as a life’s dream participation in the fabulous spectacle known as the World Cup. I would have thought that this far post-Caligiuri and post-Palo Alto we would be a perennial international power and not the equivalent of an NCAA eighth or ninth seed.

Regardless, I will be in front of my television set Monday at 6 p.m. I will have my World Cup previews at the ready. I will have George Vecsey’s book ready for consultation. I will be rooting for Team USA to defeat Ghana.

Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. You never know.

Bob Ryan’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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