USA no minnows 20 years on from return

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IRENE, South Africa - Twenty years ago, the United States marked their return to the World Cup finals, after 40 year absence and suffered a crushing 5-1 defeat to Czechoslovakia.

On Saturday they take the field against England, in their Group C opener and no-one in the world would be overly surprised if they drew against one of the game's traditional powers.

"Soccer has grown so much in America," Marcelo Balboa, who came on as a sub in that mauling in Florence and featured in three World Cups, told Reuters.

"In 1990 we were a bunch of kids out of college who had a dream about playing in the World Cup - we were kids and reality slapped us right in the face.

"People had told us we would be physically strong and we walked out down the tunnel and saw a six foot five centre-forward and a six foot one forward. Our dream had come true and it scared the crap out of us," he said.

After a respectable 1-0 loss to Italy and then a 2-1 defeat to Austria, the Americans went home without a point - not that anyone seemed to notice.

"There was a huge reception at the airport," said Balboa with a grin, "I think it was my girlfriend and my college coach."

The official departure had hardly been much better - the team gathering with officials at an Italian restaurant in New York's Little Italy - very different treatment from the formal send-off the current team received at the White House from President Barack Obama.

But at least after that four decade long absence from the World Cup, the U.S. were back on the global stage and ready to start the climb towards the respectable position they now occupy.

FIFA's decision to let the U.S host the 1994 World Cup forced a rethink on how the game was being developed Stateside.

"Preparing for 1994, we didn't even have a professional league - not outdoor football anyway," Fernando Clavijo, 61-times U.S international, told Reuters.

"I remember playing on a Thursday night, indoors in St.Louis and then travelling on Friday to play a friendly in Brazil in front of 80,000 people," he said.

MLS BOOST

The creation of Major League Soccer, which began in 1996, helped create a steady supply of players to the national team and gave those footballers a chance to play regular professional football at last.

"If it wasn't for MLS where would Landon Donovan be? Where would Clint Dempsey be?" asks Balboa.

"Look at all these players who have had the opportunity because of MLS to develop their craft to live a life that they have dreamt of since being a kid of playing professional soccer in the United States and then going to Europe," he said.

Both Balboa and Clavijo, who have continued their involvement in the game in various roles, feel former coach, the much-travelled Serb Bora Milutinovic, does not get enough credit for the way he brought the U.S national team into the modern era.

"We were college kids playing against professionals and I think that is where U.S Soccer realised they needed to do something in order for us to compete and have a chance in 1994.

"They brought in Bora and he changed our mentality and showed us how we could beat teams and how, as Americans, he showed us our strengths rather than our weaknesses. That kind of got the ball rolling for us," he said.

After a good display wearing star spangled shirts in 1994 and a poor one in France in 1998, the U.S, now under the charge of Bruce Arena reached the quarter-finals in 2002, beating Portugal and Mexico before losing 1-0 to eventual finalists Germany.

Although the display in Germany four years later was disappointing, Bob Bradley took over and guided the team to the final of the Confederations Cup last year where they beat European champions Spain and lost to Brazil in the final, after going 2-0 up.

With the World Cup now firmly on the radar of American sports fans and mass media, Saturday's game with England is the biggest event yet in the growth of the game.

In the last finals before their 40 year disappearing act, the U.S beat England 1-0 in Brazil - a result which stunned the football world and English supporters were shocked again in 1993 when the U.S, featuring Clavijo at left-back, beat England in a friendly.

The form book still favours England for Saturday's game in Rustenburg but there are now just five teams separating the two countries in FIFA's world rankings.

Balboa says while some would be surprised at a U.S win, it wouldn't be such an upset.

"Would it be a shock? I don't think it would be," he said.

"People respect the team we have and the talent we have and I don't think it would be as big a surprise as some people are making out to be."

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