Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley are stars for the summer. They hope they will be regarded as pioneers one day.
Now that Donovan, Beasley and the rest of the U.S. soccer team are home from their unexpectedly successful performance at the World Cup, the tough part begins. They want to make sure American soccer capitalizes on the team's trip to the quarterfinals its best showing since 1930 without overplaying expectations.
"The goal has always been to get a broader audience, and I think we accomplished that," said Donovan, who went on a whirlwind media tour upon his return, beginning with an appearance on "Late Night with David Letterman."
"The question to be answered next is, are they going to stay with us?"
Most soccer experts agree that Major League Soccer will be the U.S. team's main supplier of players for the foreseeable future. In its seventh year, the league is showing signs of success.
Still, that doesn't disguise the fact MLS has lost more than $250 million over six years, or that two teams in Florida just folded, or that European leagues have always had a knack for picking off top American players.
MLS television ratings are minuscule about 200,000 homes tune in to Saturday afternoon games on ESPN.
About 4 million kids play in youth leagues nationwide, about double what it was 12 years ago. But America still lags behind in the most crucial task, identifying young talent and turning those kids into world-class soccer players.
Bob Contiguglia, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, says the United States' recent success makes him optimistic, but only cautiously so.
He's wary of inflating expectations based on the results of the tournament.
In fact, Contiguglia no longer puts much credence in the ultimate goal set in Project 2010, the blueprint USSF executives hatched for America's soccer future four years ago. Those officials said America should be a legitimate threat to win the World Cup by the end of the decade.
"To make predictions like that is silly and unrealistic," Contiguglia said. "I think we need to be realistic and focus on making every player in our sport in this country as good as he or she can be. If we do that, everything else will fall into place."
The two best examples of America's effort to produce world-class talent are a program called Project 40 and the USSF's under-17 residency camp in Bradenton, Fla.
Project 40 is a joint MLS and USSF program that allows a handful of elite players, ages 17-22, to play professionally while earning tuition for college. Most MLS rosters have 1-to-3 Project 40 players. Beasley, 20, and World Cup teammate Josh Wolff, 25, are two graduates of the program.
The USSF's under-17 residency program makes 30 spots available to top players who vie for 20 berths on a national team. That program produced Beasley and Donovan, also 20.
Both programs are working, but as USSF spokesman Jim Moorhouse points out, they are well behind the rest of the world.
"In Project 40, you might have 40 players in there at one time for the entire MLS," Moorhouse said. "Over in England, you might have one team with 100 players in a program like that."
One point many soccer experts agree on is that the NCAA can no longer be a place to breed top players.
"Soccer in college is a two-month, three-month proposition," says Jim Cosgrove, USSF's director of youth soccer. "You're not going to enhance development that way."
Once players are identified and developed, they need people to watch them. Soccer aficionados are hoping the United States' success in the World Cup will increase fan interest.
Even though the game started at 7:30 a.m. EDT, the United States-Germany quarterfinal drew 3.7 million households on ESPN, the largest soccer audience ever on the network.
MLS attendance hovers around 15,000 a game, a decent-sized NHL or NBA crowd on many nights.
Contiguglia wants more soccer-only stadiums in the future. The boldest project is one planned by Phil Anschutz, who owns six of the 10 MLS teams. He's building a 27,000-seat stadium at California State Dominguez Hills that eventually will also be used as a West Coast training center, mirroring the one in Florida.
The best news could be that the soccer calendar gives America a chance to capitalize on its recently gained momentum.
Next year in China, the U.S. women will defend their World Cup championship. The '99 event produced a defining moment for the women's game when Brandi Chastain celebrated her winning shot by tearing off her jersey and exposing her sports bra to the world.
In 2004, Olympic soccer takes center stage, where the best players under 23 compete. Two years ago, the U.S. men finished fourth and the women second.
Qualifying for the World Cup begins in 2004 and, two years later, the United States hopes to be in the 32-nation field in Germany.
Who will be paying attention? And will there be a team worth paying attention to? Those are the questions that have overwhelmed the successful Americans upon their return.
"I'm just afraid two weeks from now that support will fade away," Beasley said. "It will be all about our World Cup team having that one moment in time."
Most soccer fans in this country agree that's a scenario America can't afford.