ROME -- This might be apocryphal, but it's how I remember it. Sometime around the 1994 World Cup, then-U.S. head coach Bora Milutinovic was asked for the millionth time why the United States had never won the game's biggest trophy. He gave the usual spiel about our lack of a legitimate pro league, the lack of a soccer culture and all the usual things brought up by way of explanation.
Then he reminded everyone that soccer was still the fourth or fifth choice for American athletes. Elsewhere, the grade-A athletes are dreaming about soccer before they've even left the incubator. But in the U.S., the blue chips -- the guys who can jump out of the gym and run 40 yards in 4.2 seconds and handle the pressure when the game is on the line and improvise brilliance from hopeless situations -- go into football, basketball, baseball and, to a lesser extent, individual games like tennis, skiing and track and field.
"Imagine if I had Isiah Thomas and Emmitt Smith as my forwards," Milutinovic said. "We would win the World Cup every year."
Now, in truth, I have no idea if Bora ever said this -- honestly, Google needs to devise a search engine that finds things the way you remember them rather than how they might actually be -- but it's a poignant argument that has shut up more than a few loudmouth critics of U.S. soccer I've encountered around the world -- like, say, here in Rome.
Usually, a glimmer of hesitation enters their eyes when they stop to contemplate what the U.S. soccer team could look like. Which leads inevitably to a few more shots of grappa and an hour-long conversation about a possible starting XI for the U.S. team in 2010, if soccer were the No. 1 sport in the country. Bora wouldn't even have to coach this team:
Champ Bailey, right back. Thriving as a cornerback in the NFL for a decade is a study in resilience: You're going to be beaten; can you get back up and make the play next time? Bailey, the Denver Broncos' lightning-quick eight-time Pro Bowler, has the man-to-man acumen to take on a Cristiano Ronaldo and the get-forward mentality to gallop into the attack on a ranging overlap.
Ed Reed, center back. The Baltimore Ravens' defense is so legendary, even we soccer nerds know about it. Or at least about Ray Lewis. But Reed, a five-time Pro Bowl safety, who doesn't show up in Under Armour ads, has the defensive skill set -- reading plays, cutting off passing lanes, tackling -- that a world-class center back needs.
Grady Sizemore, center back. While Reed would run the show in back, the Cleveland Indians' slugger would roam the central defense like only a two-time Gold Glove center fielder could, reacting instinctively to every play, communicating with his back-line mates.
Kelly Slater, left back. Slater is, by most accounts, the greatest surfer ever. (Just askSports Illustrated's Gary Smith.) Surfing, of course, requires incredible balance, stamina and core strength, so the nine-time world champion would have no problem with the physical side of things. His split-second decision-making would make him so effective, picking his moments to bomb forward the same way he picks waves to attack.
Kobe Bryant, right wing. On the court, if the Los Angeles Lakers' guard wants to get to the basket and get his shot off, he will. On the field, if he wanted to get to the byline and get the cross in, he would. Plus, his crossover move would work wonders whenever he wanted to go to the middle and take a shot.
Bob Sanders, holding center midfield. A cultured destroyer whose smallish frame might seem unsuited to the international game, the Indianapolis Colts' safety would channel Claude Makélélé: He'd do the dirty work, clean it up and ignite the transition to offense.
Chris Paul, attacking midfield. Someone's got to be the ringmaster and no American athlete right now has the vision of New Orleans Hornets guard Paul. Like Lionel Messi, he'd get the ball at midfield, turn his man and drive into the heart of the opposing defense.
Reggie Bush, left wing. If the New Orleans Saints' freight train had spent his youth dribbling and crossing soccer balls -- a la his TV-ad buddyDavidBeckham -- he would be a devastating left flanker. Think Roberto Carlos with six more inches and about 40 more pounds.
LeBron James. You could almost leave King James up top alone and let him torment defenses with his Mack-truck frame, blink-of-an-eye first step, gravity-defying coordination and, let's be honest, most efficient finishing since His Airness.
Tyson Gay. In basketball, LeBron probably could win games alone, but on the soccer field, he would need someone to play off of him, someone capable of dashing into the channels to get his flicks or latch onto a through ball from Paul. The second-fastest American sprinter would do nicely, I'd say.
Tim Howard. OK, so this goes against the whole exercise, but since Bora's time, soccer has grown in the U.S. and now there are some top-level studs slipping on the U.S. jersey. Howard is definitely one. His size, quickness and mental toughness would translate to other sports. We just lucked out that he picked the one he did. (Clint Dempsey and Oguchi Onyewu are a couple of others -- and there are more.)