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World Soccer Shoots for Goal Of US Popularity

AS the sun sinks behind craggy hills here, herds of suburbanites shuffle through jammed traffic to the Trabuco Hills High School Football Stadium. Pompom-swirling cheerleaders prance before standing-room-only crowds, air horns reverberate over the cries of hot dog vendors, and a visiting-team crowd punctuates the night air with unrelenting tedium:

"Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap, clap clap clap clap, PERU!"

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"They're here to help America generate some of the same enthusiasm for soccer as the rest of the world has," says Willie Banks, Deputy Executive Director for World Cup USA 1994, Inc. A crush of visiting international media - La Nueva Prensade, Minimondas, Futbol Primera - broadcasts the proceedings to South America.

Next year, the United States is hosting the world's premier single-sport competition for the first time in history - World Cup, 1994. (See story, below.)

Organizers thought it would be nice to fine-tune the host-country team with some international competition while they drummed up a bit more local and national appetite for the sport.

A few eyes will be watching: 1.4 billion watched the last World Cup Final on TV in 1990, three times the viewership for the 1969 moon landing. The cumulative worldwide TV audience for the 24-nation tournament is projected at about 3 billion.

On the field below, the US and Peruvian national teams are zigging and zagging, 22 men in multicolored shorts and over-the-calf sweat socks. They butt shoulders and heads as each side tries to guide the ball in opposite directions through stampedes of churning, cleated feet. When the ball goes airborne, team members volley the ball from head to head.

As a tuneup to the big event, the US Soccer Federation (USSF) this year is hosting a four-country tournament, "US Cup '93," against teams from England, Brazil, and Germany, the countries whose teams have won seven of 14 Cup titles played since the quadrennial series began in 1930. The US is also playing several so-called "international friendlies," like the game in this Southern California suburb.

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The operative questions on this late-spring evening, in the town where a pool of about 40 athletes train for 22 berths on the US squad: Is the US team good enough? Do Americans want to watch?

The answers seem to be "maybe."

"The US has plenty of world-class players, enough to win a championship,"says Alex Eisner, a Peruvian whose brother played for several championship Peruvian teams. "But they need more experience together, working to hone themselves as a team."

"Soccer will never attain the popularity here of American football, basketball, or baseball," says Tommy Perez, an American spectator from Lancaster, about 100 miles north. He notes that the cheering half of tonight's crowd is virtually all visiting Peruvian fans.

"Next year will change that for a bit," he says. "But Americans like big scores. Soccer doesn't give them that."

The US National Team all-time record is 100 won, 165 lost, and 70 tied, according to USSF's Denise Wilmer. The current team's record, she says, is 3, 5, and 9. Many spectators in this crowd feel that US soccer's heyday passed after several professional leagues went belly up during the 1970s. But the US Soccer Federation says the popularity of the sport has grown steadily for nearly two decades.

They point to the federation's most recent successes. In November, the US "five-a-side" National Team won the silver medal at the Second FIFA (Fration Internationale de Football Association) Indoor Five-a-Side World Championship in Hong Kong.

Also last year, the US National Team won the inaugural US Cup '92 after defeating Ireland and Portugal and tying Italy, a three-time world champion. An under-23 team won the Gold Medal in the 1992 Pan American Games.

Steve Sampson, assistant coach, says this year's men's national team has developed a "tremendous fighting spirit" that helps keep the team playing at a high level of energy. "But we need more than spirit," he adds, saying the team must take better control of the attacking one-third of the field. He also feels team members need to do better at getting behind opponents' defenses.

"We need to take more risks," Mr. Sampson says, noting that the team is still experimenting with different lineups that need more time playing together to understand teammate strengths and weaknesses.

"We are missing seven of our best players," adds Mike Lapper, a 22-year-old defensive player, sitting this game out because of an injury. Several US players are members of professional club teams in Europe, whose seasons are just ending.

"The game has been getting faster this year,"says player Dominick Kinnear, in the locker room after the game. "That has made for good practice for playing England, Germany and Brazil."

Though the crowd this night seems uncommitted either to total enthusiasm or boredom, several soccer-watchers say advance interest in 1994's World Cup tournament games is high. Nearly 50,000 seats have been sold for another tournament game at Soldiers Field, Chicago, this weekend. And already 650,000 of the US series total of 900,000 World Cup tickets have been sold., with prices ranging from $25 to $475.

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