Losing three games at the last World Cup, it's clear now, didn't indicate a deep crisis of American soccer.
Four years earlier, the United States was home for the event, and its soccer fans could get giddy about winning a single game, tying another, and reaching the second round with a third-place finish from a four-team group.
There wasn't a U.S. league back then, and the feats of the national team gave you an overriding impression of the state of the American game. A more accurate barometer of the nation's players, however, could be found in how U.S. players coped in foreign leagues.
Thomas Dooley, Roy Wegerle and Ernie Stewart weren't raised in the United States. That doesn't discount their credibility as U.S. national team players, but their success abroad tells us nothing about the quality that comes from American youth soccer.
In the early part of the decade, Tab Ramos, Paul Caligiuri, John Harkes, Eric Wynalda and Kasey Keller went abroad. But they were limited to Second Division clubs or lower-tier First Division teams. (Caligiuri did win the last East German league title.)
Less than a year after the France '98 disappointment, Claudio Reyna celebrated a Scottish league title with Glasgow Rangers. He joined the team late in the campaign, but that the club wanted him for the end run proves his strong reputation.
Then we have Frankie Hejduk, finishing runner-up in the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen, and Tony Sanneh, who will finish third with Hertha Berlin.
That Reyna, Sanneh and Hejduk will be on European Champions League teams next season represents a historic accomplishment for American soccer. That Hejduk and Sanneh, two U.S. role players, so easily slipped into First Division lineups reveals a notable rise in the talent level of American players.
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