There are two reliable ways to measure the progress of a country's soccer: national team results and the success of its players in foreign leagues. Start investigating the U.S. national team's rise to respectability, and you'll notice how closely the two are linked.
In 1989, when the United States qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years, the goal that got it there came off the foot of Paul Caligiuri, who had moved to Germany in 1987.
The national team's most notable steps forward came in the 1990s, when foreign-based players became the core of teams fielded by coaches Bora Milutinovic, Steve Sampson and Bruce Arena.
Under Milutinovic, the U.S. reached the second round of the World Cup. Under Sampson, it finished fourth at the Copa America and qualified for a third straight World Cup. Arena had 12 foreign-based players on the roster he used to make the most impressive U.S. World Cup showing ever.
When Caligiuri, then a 23-year-old who had just finished his college career at UCLA, signed with Hamburg SV of the German First Division, he was greeted by a media circus. For the Germans, the arrival of an American was incredible.
After falling victim in Hamburg to what was then a three-player foreigner limit, Caligiuri became a starter in the Second Division.
After the 1990 World Cup, John Harkes went to England, Tab Ramos to Spain and Caligiuri moved to East Germany, where he won the double with Hansa Rostock. Kasey Keller, a reserve on the 1990 team, moved to England in 1991, where he remains today.
When Eric Wynalda arrived in Germany in 1992, he broke new ground by proving the U.S. could produce goalscorers. Claudio Reyna went to Germany in 1994 and Brad Friedel played in Denmark and Turkey before becoming a star in England.
Those pioneers did not have the MLS option. That Americans are still going abroad - the foreign-based corps is larger than ever - means progress continues.
by Soccer AmericaExecutive Editor Mike Woitalla