Canales Corner: The USA Is Drawing Ever Closer To A Goal

As 2010 nears, there are small, yet encouraging signs that the sleeping giant of American soccer fandom may be waking up to note how far the country has come in the sport.

By Andrea Canales

"From South Africa to Santa Monica!" The DJ host of the adidas event at the Third Street Promenade shopping district was in high spirits as he blasted tunes through portable speakers for the high-octane performing dance troupe that reveled in the rhythms of modernized tribal beats and celebrated the FIFA World Cup draw, though thousands of miles away from where the official event was being held in Cape Town.

The Southern California crowd of sunburned tourists and laid-back locals edged closer, impressed with the skills of the three featured dancers.

Once they ended their demonstration dances, the performers mingled among the audience, encouraging people to join in the next round.

African dance doesn't conform to the upright and rather stiff styles of ballroom dance popular on some television shows. It's far more physical and exuberant, with a strong emphasis on moves that are true to every beat pulsing through the music.

As often happens, children were among the first to be utterly fearless and respond to the invitation. They waved their hands in the air like they just didn't care, stepping along in determined fashion as one dancer led the small group in a series of simple moves.

Sure, the participants weren't professionals, and their awkward movements lacked polish, but their enthusiasm was infectious and soon a few more people joined in.

It was all part of a kickoff to the 2010 World Cup event that included the unveiling of a giant Jabulani ball (the official adidas ball for the tournament). In one Zulu dialect, "jabulani" means celebration, the DJ announced to the crowd, exhorting them to shout the word out loud.

"Jabulani!" yelled the people obediently, then fell into line to get a chance at having a regulation-sized ball signed by the soccer players in attendance as part of the proceedings, defender Jimmy Conrad and midfielder Sacha Kljestan.

Though both are probably on the fringes of the USA World Cup team at this point, the pair have played important roles for the Americans already, having performed in key qualifying matches.

Stalwart defender Conrad was also bright spot for the USA in a rather gloomy 2006 World Cup. His memories of the experience were quite fond, as he spoke of observing a growing phenomenon of interest for the sport in the United States.

"I was surprised by the amount of support that we had in Germany," Conrad said. "There's been a lot of fever, a lot of talk, especially after the Confederations Cup. I'd expect the same people to come out and follow us."

Indeed, though Conrad stated that he expected the crowd at the USA's opening match to be pro-England, given the famous fervency of that country's fans, early indications are that a sizable American contingent will be cheering their squad on as well.

In fact, more 2010 World Cup tickets have been bought from the USA than any other country - aside from the South African hosts themselves.

To a certain extent, 2010 is a bit of a magic number for the USA - it was a long-ago goal of the soccer federation to plot a strategy to be legitimate contenders by that time. The program has been partly successful, as after an absence from the World Cup tournament of forty years (1950 to 1990), the Americans have competed in every edition of the World Cup, advancing as far as the quarterfinals in 2002.

Kljestan, who was a key player in the USA's Olympic effort in 2008, recalled that 2010 was a target at youth level for some time.

"I’ve known about that for a long time," Kljestan explained. "I remember playing ODP and seeing they had this thing 'Project 2010' that was always on the sleeve. I never thought I’d actually be here and have a chance to make the team and now it’s kind of real."

Perhaps not surprisingly, after the backlash from many outsiders who viewed the timetable as a supreme act of American arrogance, U.S. Soccer has pared back even mentioning Project 2010.

"I haven’t heard any of the higher-ups talking about it like this was our goal," Kljestan acknowledged. "But I think we’ve got a good team. We obviously proved in the Confederations Cup that anything can happen in football, so we hope to make a nice storied run in 2010."

The USA may have gotten to the world party and huge celebration a bit late, but it's easy to follow the steps that lead to a building tide of attraction toward soccer.

The faces of the children present at the kickoff event lit up not only when they practiced their new dance moves, but also when they watched Conrad and Kljestan juggle the new ball a bit. The kids, energetic and excited, occasionally bounded impatiently out of the autograph line to see how much closer they were progressing to the front.

In that sense, they reminded me of the American squad itself. Project 2010 and the aim of being truly competitive in the World Cup may be a pipe dream, but it's one worth chasing, if only to see how much further away the top really is.

Andrea Canales is Chief Editor of North America

How important is the draw to a team's World Cup success? Find out what the experts say in the DEC/JAN issue of Magazine