Harry Keough likes to talk about 1950 - but not at the expense of 1990. ``I don't mind getting nostalgic about 1950,'' says the St. Louis resident who played that year in the most glorious moment of United States soccer history - a stunning 1-0 victory over England in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil. ``That was a great moment, but let's put the focus on the team as it is now.'' ``Now'' means the upcoming Olympics, for which the US has already qualified, and maybe even the 1990 World Cup, where the Americans hope to make the final field of 24 - something no US squad has done since 1950. A 5-1 victory over Jamaica in a qualifying game here earlier this month put the Americans in a five-team pool of teams from North and Central America and the Caribbean. These teams will play a home-and-home round-robin series of eight games next year, with the two top finishers moving into the final phase in Italy in 1990.
The US and Canada appear to be the favorites to advance, but anything can happen in these tournaments - as Americans are only too well aware. Too many times in the past, US hopes have been dashed by lower-echelon teams in the preliminary rounds.
``If we had been eliminated by Jamaica, we could have packed it in for two years, and for us two years is a lifetime,'' said US coach Lothar Osiander. ``We'll still be an outsider if we make it - and we should [make it]. By '94, maybe we'll be competitive.''
Osiander is a naturalized citizen, just like the two players who scored three key goals in the Jamaica game - Hugo Perez (El Salvador) and two-goal producer Frank Klopas (Greece). Born in West Germany, Osiander is a full-time waiter in San Francisco and gets $100 per day when he's coaching the US team, which is 10-10-5 against other national teams in his 2-year tenure.
``The progress we've made in the last few years is phenomenal,'' he says. ``Soccer has to get to the stage where it's a socially bred activity. We're heading that way.''
According to Osiander, an American style of play is emerging. ``It's hustle, bustle, fighting for the ball, running, chasing, discipline, and enthusiastic play,'' he said. ``Eventually, for sure we have to be more technical.''
The best technical player is Perez. ``Once all of our guys can play with his technical skills, we'll compete,'' Osiander said.
The US also has Brent Goulet, considered the best goal scorer in its history. Goulet scored 108 goals in three years at Warner-Pacific College in Portland, Ore. He spent last season, which he calls ``disappointing,'' playing for Bournemouth in England's second division. He played in only 9 of 40 games and didn't score.
``They said I wasn't aggressive enough chasing down defenders,'' Goulet said. ``That's big in England but it's not my style.''
In nine matches against other national teams, Goulet has scored six goals. ``The main difference now with the US team is we have quick people who can score,'' he said. The five goals against Jamaica were the most the US has scored against another national team since a 6-2 win over Bermuda in 1968.
The US faces a tough road in the Olympics, where it plays in a group including defending World Cup champion Argentina, host country South Korea, and the Soviet Union. The top two move to the quarterfinals.
Whatever happens there, however, American soccer may have finally arrived. Last month the US was awarded the 1994 World Cup. As the host country, the US team gets an automatic berth in the final field for that tournament.
First, though, comes the 1990 World Cup and a chance for both money and prestige. If the US makes it to Italy, it will net $3 million for just showing up.
The USSF has also announced plans for a major professional league, probably to begin in 1991, and hopes to have a full-time coaching staff in 1989.
The future for American soccer ``is not far from now,'' said Keith Walker, a former English referee and professional soccer executive, who is the USSF's secretary.
``We now need to expose our players to more international soccer, in Europe and South America. That's how you get street smarts in the game,'' Walker said, noting that more ambitious scheduling has been pursued for this reason. In 1984, the US fielded three so-called national teams that played fewer than 30 games. In 1988, there are seven teams, beginning with a 16-and-under squad, that have played a total of 154 games. As for numbers, the USSF had 103,000 youth players (19-and-under) in 1974; today it has 1.4 million.
Walker called the victory over Jamaica ``a milestone'' - a thought echoed by midfielder Rick Davis. At 29, Davis is the veteran of the US team and probably the wealthiest and best-known soccer player in the country.
``The ramifications of winning [against Jamaica] weren't as significant as losing,'' said Davis. ``Everybody knows we're not the caliber to win [the World Cup], but people think it's time we qualified.''
Put simply, without the World Cup to shoot for, the US can't justify a standing national team. And without this, the US will never get good enough to make the World Cup.