PAUL KENNEDY: The best year ever?

The '90s, which we will cover in our last installment of our "American Century" in the first issue of the New Year, will go down as the greatest decade in the history of American soccer, and 1999 may go down as the best year of the lot.

A case can be made that 1991 was the greatest year in American history, featuring three international titles (Gold Cup, Pan-American Games and Women's World Cup).

The United States took only two international titles this year. Both were on the women's side: a second Women's World Cup crown and a gold medal for the U-18s at the Pan-Am Games.

But never have there been the across-the-board successes that we have witnessed this year: third-place finishes at the Confederations Cup and Pan-Am Games, the fourth-place finish (with Golden and Silver Balls to Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley) for the U-17s in New Zealand and a second-round appearance (with the Bronze Boot to Taylor Twellman) by the U-20s in Nigeria.

The successes of the two senior teams take on more importance when you consider the competition. It would have been unthinkable eight years ago that the U.S. men could beat Germany, not once but twice in a year. The level of the women's game has increased considerably since '91.

Just as important, the American media took notice. Eight years ago, soccer coverage was still pretty dismal.

The key, of course, will be the legacy of these successes.

MLS, even after four seasons, is still a shaky proposition. And we're still waiting, almost six months after USA '99, for word on a women's pro league.

These '99 successes will mean little if these two pro leagues don't thrive in the new millennium.

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