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International Soccer
Go East young men

Tim Keeble, Soccer Editor

Stoppage Time Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - After the U.S. National Team crashed out of the 2006 World Cup this past summer, and found itself in the company of such noted soccer powers as Tunisia and Guinea in the latest FIFA rankings, I think it's time that we take a look at the simple reason for these shortcomings, the talent level.

It may seem like an obvious answer, but prior to this past summer's festivities in Germany, the talent level of the Stars and Stripes was never in question. Expectations were at an all-time high following the Americans' run to the quarterfinals of the 2002 World Cup.

In April, the national team was ranked as high as fourth by FIFA, (an absurd ranking no matter how you look at it), and had thoughts of another foray into the knockout stages of soccer's Super Bowl.

Three months later, reality set in.

Bruce Arena's side found itself at the bottom of the Group E table, having secured just one point in three matches. Make no mistake, the U.S. was thrown into a tough group with European heavyweights Italy and the Czech Republic. However, it wasn't the fact that they came out on the short end of things, it was how badly they were outclassed by teams that they were supposed be on level footing with.

As exciting as the 2002 World Cup run was for American soccer fans, I think we need to put it in its proper perspective.

Bobby Convey
Bobby Convey is currently playing with Reading in the English Premier League.

The rosters of the 2002 World Cup team and the 2006 edition were eerily similar, made up of half MLS players and half players from European leagues.

So how did the U.S. go from rubbin' elbows with the game's elite in the quarterfinals of the world's biggest tournament, to four years later, being relegated to the role of also-ran?

The simple answer to this question is that the Americans captured lightning in a bottle and caught some timely breaks en route to their deepest World Cup run since an appearance in the semifinals in 1930.

After stunning group favorites Portugal in the opening match, the U.S. earned a hard-fought draw with host nation Korea. The Yanks were then soundly whipped by Poland, 3-1, and would have been sent packing were it not for Korea's Park Ji Sung, who scored in the 70th minute to beat Portugal 1-0. Had the game finished 0-0, Portugal, not the United States, would have taken on Mexico in the knockout round and we would be left to talk about another disappointing World Cup performance.

The Americans received another break when Mexico, a team that the U.S. is very familiar with, won its group. This set up a winnable contest for Bruce Arena's side and allowed them to get all the way to the quarterfinals, where they finally bowed out to Germany. As tough as it was to watch the Red, White and Blue be thoroughly outplayed in Germany, it also served as a much-needed wake-up call to the national team.

In order for the USA to become a factor in international competition, its players must gain experience in playing against international competition.

They certainly will not achieve that by playing in MLS, where they will go up against college kids who have no where else to go after graduation, or washed- out internationals who are five years past their prime.

Landon Donovan will never fulfill the enormous potential he exhibited in Korea in 2002 as long as he is trying to beat Bobby Boswell, the MLS Defender of the Year recipient, on a regular basis. Donovan took his game to Bayer Leverkusen of the German Bundesliga following his breakout performance, but failed miserably. He rarely saw the field and when he did, he looked completely overmatched.

Midfielder Bobby Convey will be one of the players who will be expected to carry the hopes of the US at the 2010 World Cup.

After starting with D.C. United in MLS for a few seasons, Convey received a baptism by fire this past summer, holding his own against the best in the world. Convey's game will only improve as he is currently plying his trade with Reading in the English Premier League, one of the top leagues in the world.

Convey will benefit from going toe-to-toe with the likes of Chelsea's John Terry and Manchester United's Gary Neville on a weekly basis. Combine that with the hostile environment that he will encounter, and Convey's game will reach heights that would not be possible in MLS.

Expecting a player to go from marking Jaime Moreno in MLS to shutting down Alberto Gilardino in the World Cup is like asking a Double-A pitcher to strike out Albert Pujols with the game on the line, it's just not practical.

Yet that is the situation that Eddie Pope faced this past summer, as well as many other national team players.

Major League Soccer should be used as a place where young American players can go to sharpen their game before heading overseas to elevate their skills.

It is not a league that breeds national team stalwarts, just a league that gives them a start.

The quicker that players such as Clint Dempsey, Jimmy Conrad and Ben Olsen realize this, the quicker U.S. soccer can return to its lofty status, only this time, it will be deserved.

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