By Michael E. Miller
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On an overcast day in late June, the U.S. Men's National Team squeezes in a practice session between scattered showers, and lightning flashes intense enough that everyone on hand stands well clear of the metal bleachers flanking the practice field at the Hilton hotel in Sunrise.
This team is composed of the country's best players -- including Fusion stars Chris Henderson (midfielder), Carlos Llamosa (defender), Pablo Mastroeni (defender/midfielder), and Nick Rimando (goalie). They take the field and splash around in the standing water while head coach Bruce Arena barks orders at them. First the players stretch their legs. (With all the running they're about to do, this is perhaps the most important aspect of practice.) Then come some warm-ups: they jog around the field, they do jumping jacks and squat-thrusts. They kick the ball around for about 20 minutes to get the blood flowing, and then there's a scrimmage of sorts.
Two teams line up to play half-field soccer with particularly exhausting rules. Each team will try to "score" on the other team, but not by putting the ball into the goal. The offensive team must make ten passes to teammates without the ball being touched by the other side. If it's successful, that's a point. When the ball is intercepted, the count starts over. The game's to ten.
The men look professional in their Umbro uniforms, running circles around one another while kicking the ball extra hard on the wet field, ripping up bowling ball-size divots in the process. But aside from their threads, these guys look -- to the American sports fan's eye, anyway -- more like J. Crew models than professional athletes.
Until their recent 1-0 loss to Mexico City, the U.S. Men's National Team was undefeated for eight straight games; even after that loss, the team is still in a strong position to qualify for the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.
When the Cup comes around every fourth year, it draws more international attention than the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Stanley Cup, and NBA Playoffs combined. If you're a sports fan (not necessarily a soccer fan), then you will more than likely tune in for the World Cup.
In 1994, the last time the World Cup was held in the United States, almost 95,000 people showed up for the finals match between Brazil and Italy. The total attendance for all of the World Cup USA matches was about 3.6 million.
The masses were treated to some exciting play, especially the U.S. team's surprising win over Colombia -- surprising because the United States had been an international soccer doormat for years. That particular game, coupled with the huge turnouts at games around the country, produced a façade for fat-cat businessmen around the country. The numbers and the U.S. World Cup team made it appear that there was demand for soccer in the U.S. The long-term impact of the 1994 World Cup was the formation of Major League Soccer a year later.
As encouraging as the 1994 World Cup was for the U.S. team, the 1998 World Cup in France was a complete disaster. The United States' dismal performance (lowlighted by a humiliating loss to Iran) placed the team 32nd of the 32 teams in the tournament.
Hoping to avoid a repeat performance four years later, the U.S. Soccer Federationin 1999 put a proposition on the table for every city in the country: Put together a proposal for a formal national training center for the U.S. Men's National Team. According to USSF spokesman Jim Moorhouse, more than 50 communities expressed interest. Observers of the process say that unofficially this is a two-horse race between Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale.
Lockhart Stadium has always been part of Fort Lauderdale's allure to the USSF. While locals may remember the Lockhart of years past as just a high-school stadium with some metal bleachers and nighttime lighting, the place was recently given a facelift. It is now, according to many coaches and general managers around the league, one of the best places to host a game. Factor in that the bleachers come all the way down to the field, and you have one of the greatest home-field advantages in sports, seating a possible 20,450 "Afusionados." It wasn't cheap -- a $5 million facelift, with absolutely no cost to the taxpayers. But if you've ever caught a game at Lockhart, you'd agree that it was well worth every penny.
The original decision on the location of the national training center was supposed to be announced in December 2000. The USSF has yet to declare a winner, but that hasn't stopped hometown newspapers from engaging in some educated guessing. The Sun-Sentinelran a couple of stories over the last year and a half speculating that the scales were tipping in favor of Fort Lauderdale. Fusion investor and operator Kenneth Horowitz was instrumental in attracting the USSF to South Florida, initially planning to put the training complex behind Lockhart Stadium.
Eddie Rodger has joined Horowitz in his efforts to lure the USSF to town. The former general manager of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League, Rodger now runs Kicks International, a soccer-marketing company in Fort Lauderdale. He was the one who convinced the Hilton to install a regulation soccer field -- the one on which the U.S. Men's National Team practiced.