So, Americans can play soccer

A note to the United States: Your national soccer team has finally arrived.

No, Brian McBride, DaMarcus Beasley, and the gang are not the next Brazil. There's no need to set the VCR to tape the World Cup final on June 30. The boys from America will not be there.

But make no mistake, America's 3-2 win over a shocked Portugal, the No. 4 team in the tournament, during the wee hours Wednesday morning, was a statement.

Think Boston Tea Party. Think Manifest Destiny.

The fact is, soccer is improving all over the world. Nations once mocked and treated to scores that looked more like emphatic Supreme Court decisions are now becoming dangerous competitors.

Look at Senegal's win over defending champions France. Or South Korea's domination of Poland.

The US is just a part of that. But here, where soccer has languished so long, yesterday's win is also something more. It is the hint of a new beginning and a new respectability – both at home and abroad.

"That game was watched by billions of people," says Tommy Smyth, an ESPN commentator in Asia for the World Cup. "It started to reinforce the idea that the United States, when it puts its mind to it, can become a force in world soccer."

For some time, being a soccer fan in America has never offered any great sense of hope. The game's history here has always been a series of false starts and failures.

The North American Soccer League in the 1970s and early '80s brought Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, and Johan Cruyff – the greatest names in the game – in a futile attempt to bring the world's game to the world's most influential nation.

Last great moment – 52 years ago

From 1950 to 1990, the men's national team failed to qualify for a single World Cup, and as recently as 1998, it finished last of 32 teams in the tournament, scoring only one goal in three games.

This is a team whose greatest moment came 52 years ago, when a fluke goal toppled England in a match some have called the biggest upset in sports history.

But yesterday's upset was different. It was deserved.

Never before had the United States stood toe-to-toe with a top-tier soccer nation at the World Cup and traded blows as equals. It had always been a member of the underclass. One of those meek teams trodden under foot on some other team's path to coronation.

With a first half of surprising invention and skill, America began its uprising. This game was a coronation, not of Portugal's Luis Figo or Sergio Conceicao – two of the most coveted players in the world, who were expected to carve out their place in the canon of World Cup greats. Rather, this game was about Brian McBride, the golden-haired kid whose headers unhinged the Portuguese back line. About DaMarcus Beasley, the leggy 20-year-old who turned defenders like pinwheels. "I know the Americans were worthy winners," says Brian Mayor, an Englishman in New York who crawled out of bed to watch the game.

Indeed, this may be American soccer's greatest generation. The United States has never sent a better team to the World Cup, and the depth of its talent was clearly displayed against imperial Portugal.

Two American players missed the game due to injury. They happened to be the two best players on the team: midfielder Claudio Reyna and forward Clint Mathis. At the end of the first half, the US captain was forced out of the game with a knock, and 20 minutes later, the country's best defender followed him to the bench. Without these players, it's unthinkable that the United States of even a few years ago could have held off one of the highest-scoring teams in the world.

Emerging superpower?

But this is something new. Americans have never had a team like this to cheer for. And now, no matter what time of day or night, many are relishing the opportunity to say their team can play with the world's best. "I think he woke up the whole neighborhood with his screaming every time the US scored a goal," says Theresa Herrera, who – while six months pregnant – woke up at 4:30 a.m. with her husband to watch the game.

• Ron Scherer contributed to this report from New York.

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