The Throw-In: 2002 WCup alumni are staying in the game

Throw-In: 2002 US

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Much like many of us are still in disbelief that it’s been 20 years since Nirvana’s seminal Nevermind, it’s hard to fathom that it’s been almost a decade since the US’ quarterfinal run at the 2002 World Cup.

Despite the international successes of the US national team since then, that remains the high watermark of the game’s history on these shores, the peak of a golden generation of players coming together over two weeks in South Korea that shocked the world.

Nine years later, it’s a bit of a shock to the system every time a player from that ’02 squad retires. You start to comprehend just how long ago it was as these guys realize their playing days are done. And that’s been happening a lot lately. With the impending retirements of Gregg Berhalter and Kasey Keller, that makes 11 veterans of that team to hang ‘em up over the past five years while wearing MLS jerseys.

Starting not long after the 2006 World Cup, we’ve seen John O’Brien, Eddie Pope, Cobi Jones, Carlos Llamosa, Claudio Reyna, Tony Sanneh, Eddie Lewis, Clint Mathis and Brian McBride all call time on amazing careers that included that run in ’02 and, for many, continued all the way to Germany four years later.

Yes, most of the young core of that team – Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Steve Cherundolo, Pablo Mastroeni, Josh Wolff – are still around and playing at a high level (to say nothing of ageless Brad Friedel). But as all these guys step off the pitch for the final time, it’s a clear sign of the end of an era and the passing of the torch to a younger generation.

But there’s also a trend going on within this group that is a big sign for the future and one that gives hope that there will be another magical run in the US’ near future.

Most of these guys aren’t going away. Instead of packing it in to spend their winters on some Caribbean island and their summers at backyard barbecues with their families, they’re staying involved in the game all over the US Soccer system.

Berhalter likely will remain part of the LA Galaxy coaching staff. Keller will remain with the Seattle Sounders in some yet-to-be-determined capacity. They join their fellow ’02 alums who are giving back to the American game.

Former US captain Reyna has one of the most influential positions in US Soccer as the USSF’s youth technical director, with an executive hand in how our kids should play. Llamosa is an assistant to head coach Robin Fraser at Chivas USA. Pope is the director of player relations at the MLS Players Union.

McBride has started his own youth academy in the Chicago suburbs, and has stayed close to MLS. Jones, besides trying his hand at TV punditry on Fox Soccer, is also stepping into technical direction at the re-envisioned New York Cosmos.

This is all noteworthy for one simple reason: The most influential generation of US players ever has decided to pass all of their knowledge on to influence the future of the game in this country. And that is something upon which you can’t assign a value.

“These guys are part of the history of US soccer,” Seattle Sounders head coach Sigi Schmid told MLSsoccer.com this week. “The knowledge that’s there, you have to make use of that, whether it’s in the coaching realm or the administrative realm, on the TV side of things or just hanging around. At the end of day, you‘ve got to keep these individuals involved in the game because they have so much to share.”

What direct effect is there? Take our neighbors to the south. Right now, Mexico are reaping the rewards of a huge emphasis on youth, driven in large part due to the fact that alumni from their 1986 World Cup team – considered to be their golden generation – are all over Mexican soccer, from front office-jobs, to inside the federation, to head coaching positions at Primera División clubs, even down to TV analysis.

That power-packed, young team we saw jumping all over the US in this past summer's Gold Cup final – swashbuckling Giovani dos Santos, bull-driven Pablo Barerra, otherworldly Chicharito and all the rest – is a direct result of Mexico keeping their most accomplished people in house at all levels. The current El Tri are awesome to watch and still years from their full potential. That’s a direct product of the previous generation’s experiences.

Their example is a tantalizing possibility for the US national team, too. If the power brokers all over US Soccer are familiar faces with stories to tell and wisdom to pass on, we, too, can dream of a younger generation not just inspired by – but formed by – our greatest achievers.

As Pope sits back and watches the final playing days of Berhalter – his center back partner against both Mexico and Germany on those long-ago days in Jeonju and Ulsan – he understands well both the duty and opportunity he and his contemporaries have in front of them.

“The national team was such a big part of me,” Pope explained to MLSsoccer.com. “To retire, then to watch them all one by one retire, and now Gregg, you really start to think about the memories. We’re all excited to see where the national team goes.”

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.