Stars, stripes & success

KEITH BRADFORD, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 3:01 PM ET

Everybody laughed when the U.S. unveiled its plan to win the World Cup by Even some national team coaches admitted to being embarrassed by the raw ambition, some would say arrogance, of the launch of Project 2010 back in

But no one is laughing now.

Today, the U.S. is ranked sixth in the world - ahead, rightly or wrongly, of such soccer giants as England, Spain, Germany and Italy.

And the world is finally, if a little begrudgingly, starting to sit up and take notice.

''A lot of us said it was great to have a goal, but it was a little far-fetched,'' said former Edmonton Drillers goalie Peter Mellor, who has spent more than a decade coaching U.S. national teams.

''We've come a heck of a long way since everyone laughed at that statement. It's hard to predict when we will win the World Cup. But I don't think it's that far away.''

To get where it is today, the U.S. invested heavily in its national program and spent time and money building Major League Soccer into a league thst now rivals the NHL in attendances.

''Our under-17 program has proven that our national teams produce players for U.S. soccer,'' said Mellor.

''We still only produce a few players at the top level but it's happening. It's a process of evolution.''

Europe may have started casting envious glances towards the U.S. for the way it has developed certain aspects of its national program, but experts still scoff at the suggestion that it can take its plan to the next level.

The image of U.S. soccer worldwide remains quintessentially American: athletic, aggressive, well-organized - and lacking in any real flair or talent.

''People just look at us as typical Americans. They say we will be fit but don't really understand what we are doing,'' said Mellor, who was born in Manchester, England, but considers himself American.

''I disagree. Technically we are pretty good at attacking. Our ball movement is pretty good, our finishing is pretty good. And our goalkeeping is outstanding.''

While the U.S. has steadily moved up the rankings from 18th in August 1998, Canada has dropped a few places - from 82nd, then to 84th today.

''There was a time going back a few years when they (Canada) seemed to have some momentum,'' said Mellor. ''A lot of it has been the lack of financial support. They've taken a couple of steps backwards.''

REAL DEAL: After spending 12 years with the U.S. national team program, Mellor recently joined the MLS team Real Salt Lake as an assistant coach.

He says he's enjoying it - despite the team name. ''Originally it was developed when there was going to be an association with Real Madrid. We hoped we were going to get Beckham!'' he joked. ''We were originally going to go over in the pre-season and play their reserve team. But everything was changed.''

Everything, that is, apart from the name.

FLYING HIGH: Mellor finished his playing career in Edmonton in 1981. And although he's spent most of his time since living and working in Tampa, Florida, the 58-year-old still has fond memories of the City of Champions.

''The mosquitoes were like eagles,'' he recalled, laughing. ''We enjoyed our time there. We enjoyed the area.''

MUCH ADU ABOUT FREDDY: Mellor has worked with some of the most talented players in the U.S. But there's one in particular who stands out.

''We've seen quality in Freddy Adu that no other player has ever shown us,'' he said. ''The guy is still only 15 - it's going to take a little bit of time for him to mature. I don't think it will be long before we see him with a top club in Europe.''


Photos