The World Cup runs feverishly for a month, but the United States is cramming all of its aspirations into the first 90 minutes.
The hopes of advancing to the second round, the future of a professional soccer league in this country, the galvanizing of public interest may rest almost entirely on the outcome of the American opener against Switzerland on Saturday, June 17, at the Pontiac Silverdome."How can you overstate it?" said Hank Steinbrecher, executive director of the U.S. Soccer Federation. "It's the most important game in the history of U.S. soccer to this point."
A victory and organizers may "catch lightning in a bottle," said Alan Rothenberg, chairman of the World Cup USA '94. The Americans would need only a tie against Colombia or Romania to advance from group play into the Round of 16, when the tournament becomes single-elimination.
A draw in the opening match would not be entirely discouraging. A defeat would threaten the United States with ignominy. No host country has ever failed to advance beyond the first round.
"We'll be collectively heartbroken if we don't get through," Steinbrecher said.
Getting to the second round, of course, is not exactly as lofty as the goals of Brazil and Germany, who each want to win a fourth World Cup title. Two-thirds of the 24 finalists will advance. And the Americans will have some advantages. First, they're playing at home. And unlike last week's exhibition at the Rose Bowl against Mexico, where approximately 90,000 of the 91,123 in attendance were cheering for the visitors, the Americans will actually play their opener in front of a friendly, if polite, crowd.
"I hope our 60,000 fans are louder than 20,000 Swiss with cowbells," Steinbrecher said.
Second, the Silverdome outside of Detroit lacks air-conditioning. The Americans believe that the Swiss may wilt in the sticky, humid conditions inside the stadium, which, in the summer, is essentially an extravagant sauna.
"I hope the temperature is 300 degrees and the humidity is 2,000 percent," said U.S. Coach Bora Milutinovic, the Serb known as the Miracle Worker. He guided Mexico, the host team, to the quarterfinals in 1986, led Costa Rica to the second round in 1990 and is now trying to work his magic with the Americans.
Undeniably, this is a more skilled team than the callow bunch of college kids who walked into a 5-1 ambush by Czechoslovakia in their opener at the 1990 World Cup, then played scared against Italy in Rome and bowed out against Austria, finishing a dismal 23rd among 24 teams.
Midfielders Tab Ramos and John Harkes, and forward Eric Wynalda - all holdovers from 1990 - have gained seasoning in European leagues. The United States, in a practice common in all countries, has also smartly signed players who are sometimes called "passport Americans," ones whose talents are significant even if their ties to this country are marginal.
Midfielder Roy Wegerle is a South African who married an American woman. Striker Ernie Stewart and defender/midfielder Thomas Dooley are foreign-born sons of American servicemen. The three of them account for much of America's offensive potency and defensive security.
Milutinovic scrapped the long-ball approach of Bob Gansler, the coach in 1990, and instituted a Latin style of possession and ball control. And he took the Americans on a three-year magical mystery tour, playing 87 international matches in preparation for the World Cup. Along the way, there were impressive victories over England and Ireland, a tie with Italy and an encouraging 4-3 defeat at the hands of world champion Germany.
"The first time, we were looking around a lot like tourists," Ramos said of the 1990 World Cup. "It's not that way anymore."
He added: "Before Bora, we used to run after everyone else. Now other teams have to run after us a little bit."
Still, this is a team where the questions far outnumber the answers.
The starters against Switzerland will be playing for the first time this year as a full unit. Harkes did not return until 10 days ago from his season in the English League. It should be noted, though, that the full squad of Americans has demonstrated an ability to jell quickly on past occasions.
"In one game, we can beat any team in the world," Milutinovic said.
For the future of American soccer, that one game had better be against Switzerland.