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WORLD CUP USA 1994 : Is the Wait Over for U.S. Soccer? : Fans: Longtime followers of the sport rewarded as the U.S. team’s success begets an increase in popularity.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine voting for Ross Perot every year. Still renting Beta tapes. Owning solar stock.

Imagine you once fell hard for something that never achieved massive popularity, and all you’ve heard since are stifled chuckles from those who didn’t.

Such is the long suffering of American soccerphiles, the lifers, the fans who were already fans as far back in ancient soccer history as the 1960s.

As of Wednesday, when Ernie Stewart’s goal put the U.S. soccer team ahead of Colombia, 2-0, and goalie Tony Meola made it stand up in a 2-1 victory, America’s new fad is soccer.

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And the windmill chasers of American sports finally can act smug.

“I’ve been engaged in conversations about soccer and about the World Cup in the past few days with people that had never uttered the word soccer before,” said Harvey Lightstone, a Woodland Hills insurance claims director. “Particularly after (Wednesday’s) astonishing win.”

Lightstone is a longtime flag waver for American soccer, a group that Wednesday got a welcome case of whiplash from the sudden sharp shift in the nation’s view of soccer.

“I’ve got quite a library of soccer books, and they’re all out on loan,” Lightstone said. “No one ever asked to borrow my books before. People want to understand what they are witnessing.”

Phil Luth, a gas company meter reader in Orange County, says he has the perfect job because, “I have lots of extra time for my soccer stuff.”

Luth officiates and coaches in youth leagues and sits on an advisory board for the Anaheim Splash, an indoor soccer team. “I was just on my way to a (Splash) board meeting and tuned into KABC in my truck,” Luth said. “These guys on the radio, who a week ago were pooh-poohing soccer, now they’re ‘Did you see this game?’ They’re starting to get the bug.

“You know, kids have loved the sport for years, but now parents are beginning to understand what all the excitement is about.”

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But some soccer die-hards have been left at the altar too many times to trust the current fad.

Todd Stauber, a journalism student at Seattle Pacific University who has written about the game for commemorative publications, claims to have watched every minute of every game in the tournament. That commitment to cable has kept him from taking in the full scope of the public interest swing, but he has watched with bemusement at soccer bandwagons parading across the screen.

“I haven’t gotten out a lot since (the World Cup) started,” Stauber said. “But I have a lot of non-soccer playing friends, and a lot of them have been talking about the games.”

Among hard-core skeptics, Stauber says, the real measure of success for the Cup is going to be if the current interest carries over to the new national professional soccer league.

If fans get on the bandwagon of the league, so much the better.

“You have to get fans somehow, and I’m sure that goes on in all sports,” Stauber said. “The World Cup is here now, but four years from now it will be somewhere else. (A pro league) can be a lasting accomplishment.”

Luth is happy to ride the current swell of interest.

“This is the hotbed season for (youth) tournaments,” he said. “People are showing up at fields just to watch soccer who obviously have no ties to any of the teams.”

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What has surprised Lightstone is the lack of understanding at the history of American soccer that built toward Wednesday’s game.

“A lot of people out there think this happened overnight,” Lightstone said. “This is 30 years of moms and pops dragging their kids to soccer practice. There has been soccer in this country for as long as there has been baseball.”

Ron Mearson, a vehicle maintenance director in Santa Paula, estimates he watches, competes in or referees 300 games a year. He is simply happy that America has not embarrassed itself with raging apathy on the world’s biggest stage.

“I had a hard time with a (pre-Cup) study that 71% of Americans didn’t know the World Cup was coming,” Mearson said. “I didn’t understand how people could not even realize what an opportunity it is to host this event.”

Recent polls and, more indicatively, TV ratings paint a brighter picture of public awareness. But Stauber said he thinks the inroads soccer makes after the Cup will be in direct proportion to the success of the U.S. team--not counting the Colombia game.

“I’m guessing that a lot of people didn’t see that game,” Stauber said. “People didn’t know that Colombia was one of the top four teams. They say, ‘Who is Colombia? They’re good? We beat them? Great!’ Now they’ll watch the second round.

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“This is the summer that will tell if soccer survives. If anything is going to do it, it’s going to be the U.S. going on (in the tournament). The farther they get, the bigger the bandwagon is going to get.”

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