Suddenly, U.S making believers


MALDONADO, Uruguay -- Below the equator, where people vTC are bundled in knitted caps and parkas to fend off temperatures in the mid-30s, the polar extremes of international soccer were exposed for all to see Wednesday in this frigid coastal city.

On one side of town were the lowly Americans, shunted to a lumpy practice field before a smattering of media and fans. On the other side were the world-champion Brazilians, sliding out of an immaculate stadium while 200 reporters begged for their attention and teen-age groupies shouted: "Por favoooooor, give me just one kiss."

But the scene hid a revolution taking place just below the surface. Over the past two weeks, the U.S. team has hit the continent like an earthquake. It has rolled into the semifinals of the world's oldest soccer tournament, Copa America, serving notice that it may be realizing the potential long feared by the traditional superpowers.

"It appears that the United States has arrived," said a Brazilian player called Leandro.

The tournament already has been shocking -- not only to soccer-consumed Latin Americans who thought it inconceivable that the U.S. could win outside its own borders, but to Americans who had watched U.S. soccer seemingly dissolve in the afterglow of last year's World Cup.

As recently as last month, midfielder Tab Ramos was saying: "It seems like soccer has disappeared again." A professional league supposedly linked to Cup was embarrassingly delayed by at least a year. Respected Serbian coach Bora (Miracle Worker) Milutinovic had been fired. Tony Meola, the glamorous ex-goalkeeper, was appearing in the off-Broadway play "Tony and Tina's Wedding."

The Cup itself was like an extravagant wedding long forgotten. With nowhere to go in the U.S., nine players from the national team bolted the country to play professionally. The lingering memory of America's big-money fling with big-time soccer remained Colombian defender Andres Escobar's murder after he accidentally kicked in his own goal against the US in Pasadena, Calif.

"This has been proof that U.S. soccer has not regressed," said Steve Sampson, who in April succeeded Milutinovic as coach on an interim basis.

When Sampson took over, U.S. soccer officials were fanning out over the globe, throwing millions at international sages and passing over the former University of Santa Clara coach entirely. Since then, the US is 5-1-1 in tournament play.

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