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US awaits 2022 World Cup with big hopes
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    NEW YORK — As Americans celebrated the Fourth of July in 1988, a present arrived from Zurich: The World Cup was headed to the United States for the first time.
    "The richest land in the world simply cannot be allowed to remain a blank spot on the world map of soccer any longer," Hermann Neuberger, president of West German soccer's governing body, said at the time.
    Since that watershed 1994 World Cup the global game is now very much a part of the country's sports landscape. There's a national team that's played in six straight World Cups, three television networks that are pretty much all soccer, constant additional exposure on ESPN2 and a growing league preparing for its 16th season — albeit one still struggling to gain attention in a market dominated by the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA.
    Bidders promise another burst of explosive growth if FIFA's executive committee awards the 2022 tournament to the United States when it votes Thursday in Zurich. Australia, Japan, Qatar and South Korea are the competition.   
    "We've got all of the infrastructure in place, and it's extraordinary infrastructure, which allows us to focus on growing the game and using the World Cup to do that in the United States and have the U.S. become an important part of the global community in this," U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I think it changes the economics in a positive way for FIFA and other associations."
    The 1994 World Cup transformed FIFA's business side.
    Names on the backs of players' jerseys?
    It started in the U.S.
    Corporate tents?            First made in America.
    All-Star teams and relentless promotion?
    Much of soccer has never seen anything like Dallas Cowboys Stadium, with its 50-yard-wide video screen hovering above field, 10,000 club seats and 300 luxury suites ringing five levels — the expensive seats alone just about match the 20,224 total capacity of Portsmouth's Fratton Park.
    Hard to compare that with those in the original bid presented by the U.S. 22 years ago, which included such antiques as Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia and Palmer Stadium in Princeton, N.J.
    FIFA's technical report says attendance at a U.S. World Cup could average 76,000, breaking the record of 68,991 set in 1994. It says there is medium legal risk because of a lack of government guarantees, which would require federal legislation after a bid is awarded.
    "Clearly for us, there is nothing that we could do in the United States, whether it be our federation or Major League Soccer, that would be more important than having the World Cup here in our country," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said.
    "Hosting the World Cup in the U.S. is by far the biggest opportunity for our league to capitalize on the growing interest for the sport and ultimately convert that interest to a deeper connection with our league, our clubs and our players."
    Gulati and his delegation have spent months lobbying the 22 voters. They'll bring along a group for the final presentation that includes former President Bill Clinton, Attorney General Eric Holder, actor Morgan Freeman, national team star Landon Donovan, former women's team star Mia Hamm and her husband, former Boston Red Sox star Nomar Garciaparra.
    "It's an election," Gulati said. "And in some sense, in elections you never know where you are until the very last minute, until the vote is taken. There's not accurate polling, per se. So we'll continue to work until the last minute."
    FIFA also is selecting the 2018 site that day, picking from among England, Russia, Spain-Portugal and Belgium-Netherlands.
    USSF officials hope to one day have a team that wins World Cups, a league that produces clubs as strong as Manchester United, Barcelona and AC Milan — likely the three most popular teams in the United States.
    This year's World Cup averaged 2,288,000 households and 3,261,000 viewers on English-language U.S. television, up from 1,735,000 homes and 2,316,000 four years ago. The final was seen by 15.55 million on ABC and another 8.82 million on Spanish-language Univision — well above the 14.3 million average audience for baseball's World Series but a fraction of the 106.5 million that watched this year's Super Bowl.
    "We're no longer sitting around trying to explain it to them," said Chuck Blazer, the FIFA executive committee member from the U.S.
    When American football officials started getting ready after the 1988 vote, there weren't proper benches for soccer teams in stadiums. Aggregate score and injury time were foreign concepts.
    "The country understands the World Cup now. I'm not sure that was the case back then," Gulati said. "The magnitude of the event has changed dramatically. Certainly the U.S. with MLS and a national team that's been quite successful, all those things are very different in changing the landscape of the sport."