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World Cup dream began 20 years ago for U.S. team (w/video)

  • In this photograph taken with a fisheye lens, United States players warm up during an official training session the day before the group G World Cup soccer match between Ghana and the United States at the Arena das Dunas in Natal, Brazil, Sunday, June 15, 2014. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Their quest for glory starts Monday in northeastern Brazil, in the coastal city of Natal, home to 1 million people obsessed with the "Beautiful Game."

But for numerous members of the U.S. national team, the World Cup dream began 20 years ago, when the planet's biggest sporting event played out -- for the first and only time -- on American soil, captivating a nation that preferred its football pigskin-style.

From the brightest stars to the deepest reserves, U.S. players point to the 1994 World Cup, which was played in stadiums across the country, including Stanford's, as their first exposure to international soccer. Exposure quickly led to obsession.

Two decades later, the circle has come full: The children of '94 are the core of what many consider the most talented United States team ever assembled, the heart of a thriving professional soccer league and the idols of the next generation of kids with World Cup fever.

Forward Chris Wondolowski was an 11-year-old from Danville when he peered through a fence to watch Brazil practice at Santa Clara University. Midfielder Graham Zusi participated in the opening ceremonies of the World Cup matches in Chicago. Defender Matt Besler recalled being awestruck by penalty kicks -- "I thought that was the coolest thing" -- and blown away by the wondrous blond Afro of Colombian star Carlos Valderrama.

"We are the first generation that has really grown up with the game," Besler said.

The '94 World Cup not only sparked a generation of soccer lovers, it launched a professional league.

FIFA, the governing body of international soccer, irked countries across the globe by awarding the cherished event to a disinterested nation. The North American Soccer League had gone out of business in 1984, leaving the U.S. with nothing but a pro indoor league.

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