IN EARLY1999,during the bleak days following its last-place finish in World Cup '98, U.S.Soccer began a grand experiment. Wanting to close the gap with the rest of theworld, the federation invited the nation's top 20 players under 17 to move toBradenton, Fla., where they would train and take high school classes in afull-time residency program at the IMG sports academy founded by tennis guruNick Bollettieri. The goals were far from modest: to contend for that year'sUnder-17 World Cup championship and to begin laying the groundwork for winningthe World Cup itself by 2010. Nor would it be cheap: more than $1.5 million, anamount never before spent on a U.S. youth team-or, for that matter, on anyunder-17 national team in the world.
Among those whostepped through the doors of the Bollettieri Academy in January '99 were fourplayers of varying backgrounds who now constitute the Golden Generation ofAmerican soccer. Landon Donovan, a shy, lightning-quick forward, had grown upspeaking Spanish with his Latino teammates on the soccer fields of SouthernCalifornia. DaMarcus Beasley, a gregarious African-American midfielder, hadturned his back on basketball in hoops-mad Fort Wayne, Ind. Oguchi Onyewu, ahulking defender from the suburbs of Washington, D.C., was the son of Nigerianimmigrants. And Bobby Convey, a flashy midfielder from Philadelphia, hadfollowed his sister, Kelly, a former All-America at Penn State, into thesport.
Seven years laterall four players will have vital roles when the U.S. commences its World Cupquest on June 12-a remarkable feat given the inexact science of identifying andcultivating soccer talent. Consider: No roster in Germany will include moreplayers who have graduated from an Under-17 World Cup team than the U.S., withits class of '99 quartet. "You never know how guys are going to panout," says U.S. coach Bruce Arena. "Landon and DaMarcus were kind ofcan't-miss players, but with Gooch and Bobby there was certainly some doubt. Wesaw those guys really start to move forward over the last year or two."
All four havetaken different paths from Bradenton to Germany, establishing pro careers inthe U.S. (Donovan), the Netherlands (Beasley), Belgium (Onyewu) and England(Convey). Yet they share a belief, forged during their days at the academy,that the U.S. can hang with the world's best anytime, anywhere. "When wewere with the under-17s, we didn't lose many games," says Beasley. "Webeat Argentina, beat Germany, beat Holland, beat England, beat all thepowerhouses except Brazil. And that swagger that we had carries over to thesenior national team. Four years ago the big thing for me and Landon was thatwe didn't fear anybody, and we still feel the same way."
WHEN ARENAinserted 20-year-olds Donovan and Beasley into the starting lineup for the 2002World Cup opener against Portugal-a 3-2 upset that set the tone for the U.S.'sstunning run to the quarterfinals-he did so partly because neither had beenscarred by the failures of '98. Against an even tougher first-round group thistime (the Czech Republic, Italy and Ghana), their fearlessness will have tospread deep into the roster. "Realistically, do I think we'll win the WorldCup? No," says Donovan. "But if we get out of our group and play anyteam, no matter who they are, can we beat them? Yes. The issue is how many guysreally believe that. I know that Beaz and Goochi and Bobby really do."
They developedtheir chemistry during countless hours on the field and around the strictlymonitored campus at Bradenton. (Donovan and Convey were roommates upstairs;Beasley and Onyewu shared downstairs quarters.) It was the sort of soccerimmersion that prospects their age were getting in the youth systems of topclubs around the world. "Everything revolved around soccer," saysOnyewu. "At that point we were like professionals. We had matches againstMLS teams and beat a lot of them. We knew if we could compete against grownpros, there was no reason we couldn't have a good showing at the worldchampionship."
By the time theyarrived in New Zealand for the U-17 tournament, the baby Yanks had gone 20games without a loss and saw no reason that they couldn't win the whole thing.Looking ridiculous with bleached-blond hair, Donovan and Beasley attacked withabandon, leading the team to first place in its group and then a 3-2quarterfinal elimination of Mexico. Even though the American team finishedfourth after being ousted by Australia in the semifinals on penalty kicks,Donovan and Beasley won the Golden and Silver Balls, respectively, as thetournament's top two individual players. No U.S. men's soccer side has ever hada better showing in a world championship. "Until that point people hadnever seen an American team play soccer like that," Donovan says."Throughout the tournament you heard that people were talking aboutus."
These days Donovanprofesses to pay a lot less attention to what foreign observers are sayingabout his game. Famously ambivalent about playing in Europe, he rejoined MLS in2005 after spending three frustrating months with Bayer Leverkusen-his secondunsuccessful stint with the German power that signed him to a four-year,$400,000 deal in 1999. Yet no matter how much the Los Angeles Galaxy starbuilds the game Stateside or how many MLS Cups he wins (three and counting),the conventional wisdom abroad is that he'll have to stand out in a World Cupplayed on the Continent to shake the "European failure" tag.
"I don't thinkof it that way, and that's because I'm content with my life," says Donovan,who's already the third-leading scorer in U.S. national team history (with 25goals in 81 appearances). "There's still this reluctance around the worldto admit that we're any good at soccer, so from that perspective there'snothing I'd rather do than just shove it up everybody's a- in Germany. But ifwe don't do well or don't meet other people's expectations, I couldn't careless what those people think. We'd have enough disappointment to dealwith."
Beasley, bycontrast, says he's happy playing in Europe. Since leaving the Chicago Fire forDutch power PSV Eindhoven in 2004, the speedy winger has improved his crossesand technical abilities, and last year he became the first American to appearin a Champions League semifinal. "When you play at a big club, there's alot of pressure to win every game," Beasley says. "In MLS it's not likethat. If we lose at PSV, the first six pages of the newspaper will be about howbad we were." Though Beasley hasn't played well for the U.S. in recentfriendlies, Arena is counting on him and Donovan to provide a maturity thatwasn't required of them in 2002.
FOUR YEARS ago, asOnyewu watched his former U-17 teammates on television, he asked himself, If Iplayed with those guys, why can't I be at that level? Now the agile 6'4",210-pound central defender is poised to become the U.S.'s breakout star of theCup, which could lead to a lucrative transfer from his Belgian team, Standardde Liége, to one of Europe's big clubs. "Gooch has fantastic physicaldimensions for a center back at the international level," says Arena-andagainst towering forwards like the Czech Republic's 6'8" Jan Koller andItaly's 6'4" Luca Toni, Onyewu will need them.
The key for Onyewuwill be to avoid the red-card ejections (three in Belgium alone this season)that he believes are largely attributable to his oversized frame. "If youtake two identical tackles, one by me and one by a player a foot shorter thanme, the referee will give me a card just because mine seems a lot harder,"says Onyewu, who played two seasons at Clemson before heading to Europe."Right now I'm trying to find that medium, where I use my body to myadvantage, and it doesn't work against me." He struck that balance in a 2-0World Cup qualifying win over Mexico last September, muscling striker JaredBorgetti off his game in a watershed performance.
Just as Onyewu islearning how to use his size, Convey has begun to maximize his speed andtechnical skills on the left flank. A year younger than his three former U-17teammates, Convey wore Rec-Specs at the youth level to protect damaged opticnerves that still cause blurring in all but the peripheral vision of his lefteye. (His U-17 coach, John Ellinger, called him "the reverse ClarkKent" because he turned into a superhero only after he put on his glasses.)After a difficult debut campaign at England's Reading in 2004-05, Convey playeda leading role in the club's promotion to the Premier League this season."I'd signed a two-year contract in England, and I wasn't just going to quitafter a year," says Convey, who enters the World Cup in perhaps the topform of any U.S. player. "This was the best season I've had as aprofessional, and to get to a World Cup and help my team get to the Premiershiphas been an awesome feeling."
ADVANCING IN theWorld Cup this summer will be a challenge of an even higher magnitude for theAmericans. During the past four years they have maintained a slim advantageover their most bitter rival (Mexico), added several promising young players(Onyewu, Convey and attackers Eddie Johnson and Clint Dempsey) and breezedthrough World Cup qualifying. Yet it's also worth noting that the U.S. hasn'tbeaten a global heavyweight besides Mexico since the 2002 World Cup; that itcould play well in Germany and still fail to advance; that the main lesson of2006 could be how remarkable it was that the team reached the quarterfinalsfour years ago.
Let's be honest:On paper, the Americans are looking at three games and out. Of course, that wasthe case in 2002 as well. For members of the Golden Generation, the bad olddays of American soccer never happened.
For regular Cup reports from Grant Wahl, including anupdated preview on the U.S. team next week from Germany, go toSI.com/soccer.