Best Feet Forward

updated 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

With the summit less than three weeks away, two dozen international powers are already gathering on U.S. soil to vie for world supremacy—in soccer. It's World Cup '94, a clash of titans in which the, U.S.—pitted against nations that eat, drink and breathe soccer—is a decided underdog.

Each of the 24 participating countries will bring a distinctive style of play—from the flashy, rhythmic ball movement of many Latin teams to the long-ball power attack of the northern Europeans. The U.S. will offer a melting-pot brand of soccer, melding foreign-born athletes with players who honed their skills in places such as California, New Jersey and Michigan. Never in Cup play, in fact, have the Yanks fielded such a wealth of homegrown talent—the fruits of a burgeoning interest in soccer among America's youth, 12 million of whom are enrolled in organized leagues.

Here's a look at a quartet of young Americans who hope to show that their country can hold its own with soccer's world powers.

Forget the rumor—this man's dreadlocks aren't for sale

Cobi Jones cringes as he remembers the time after a game in Dallas when a security guard had to pry him free from the lip-lock of a young female fan. Or the times he has been mobbed by squealing teenage girls. "It's scary," he says, shaking his dreadlocks in bewilderment over his sudden heartthrob image. "I don't know what gets into them."

What's not scary for Jones is running full-tilt downfield while maneuvering a ball past onrushing defenders. One of the team's quickest members, Jones, 23, "is like the wide receiver who's always a threat to go deep," says assistant coach Sigi Schmid, who first coached Jones at UCLA.

The son of a chemist and a school-teacher in his hometown of Westlake village, Calif., Jones had decided on a career in environmental law—something he still hopes to pursue. "I grew up in a pretty rural place north of Los Angeles," says the youngest of three Jones boys. "I had a lot of time as a kid to roam around the hills and streams and appreciate nature." Under the tutelage of Schmid and older players at UCLA, the nature boy became a goal-scoring machine. He dropped out of college to play on the 1992 Olympic team and then accepted an invitation to the U.S. team training center in Mission Viejo, Calif.

Jones's teammates, who call him Medusa or Rastaman, like to rib him about his distinctive hairstyle. As the players were introduced to a crowd at the opening of the training center, defender Alexi Lalas announced to a group of Jones devotees that he would sell individual dreadlocks afterward in the parking lot. "I hope he doesn't try that again," says Jones. "I don't want this cult thing to get out of hand."

For Claudio, young enough to walk was old enough to kick

From his first wobbly steps as a toddler, when his father would roll him a stuffed ball on the living-room carpet, Claudio Reyna learned to play soccer as naturally as he walks. "I guess I got a head start," says the soft-spoken 20-year-old.

Enthusiasts hope that Reyna, called by pundits the "future of American soccer," will give their sport a head start too. "Claudio has that rare sixth sense that makes him one of the most gifted players in the game," says assistant coach Steve Sampson. "When he gels the ball, it's electric."

As a boy, Claudio developed a work ethic to go along with his soccer skills. His parents, Miguel and Maria, came to the U.S. nearly penniless in 1968 after Miguel's professional soccer career in their native Argentina was cut short by a broken ankle. Although neither spoke English, Miguel got a job as a carpenter and Maria labored in a toy factory so they could afford a home in the middle-class suburb of Springfield, N.J. "My parents always taught us to work hard, be honest and get a good education," Reyna says of himself and brother Marcelo, 24.

Even before Reyna led the University of Virginia to an unprecedented three-straight NCAA titles (1991-93), critics watched agape as he danced through opposing high school teams as if he had the ball on a string. Plucked from his junior year in college less than six months before the World Cup, the youngest member of the U.S. team lacks just one qualification: experience. "When I got to the training site in January, I had the butterflies," Reyna recalls. "I didn't know if I would fit in. So far, I've gained a lot of confidence."

Rocking to his own beat, a defender pumps up the volume

Defender cum rocker Alexi Lalas slices a shot into the empty practice goal and a change comes over him. Suddenly, for a moment, he is Jimi Hendrix, mouthing a riff as he pounds air guitar—"Wah, wah, WEEOW!"—before trotting back to his teammates.

It's that easy for the red-maned, red-goateed free spirit of the U.S. national team to slip between his two lives. While preparing for the World Cup, 23-year-old Lalas has found time to perform with his rock band, the Gypsies, and he has recorded a solo CD of 12 songs, including the soccer-oriented "Kickin' Balls."

Lalas lived in the Detroit suburb of Birmingham until age 6. After his parents separated, he moved to Greece to live with his father, Dmetrius, learning soccer to fit in with the other kids. Four years later he returned to his mother's home in Michigan. In 1991 he was college player of the year at Rutgers. The aggressive if sometimes inelegant Lalas has become a mainstay on defense and, at 6'3", a threat to score with headers. "It may not always be pretty," he says. "But I work my ass off and get the job done."

A New Jersey-born poster boy heads home from England

As the first Yank to conquer English soccer, John Harkes has shattered the myth that U.S.-born players can't compete in the world's favorite game. "Here's a kid who grew up in blue-collar New Jersey when we didn't have a league good enough for him to play in," says U.S. Soccer Federation executive director Hank Steinbrecher. "So he went to England and lived his dream."

The son of Scottish immigrants, the 27-year-old midfielder has slipped easily into his role in the birthplace of soccer, picking up an English accent and a $200,000-a-year contract along the way. The game, too, was always a natural fit.

The American Express, as the Brits call him, grew up watching his father play soccer with other Scots in the mill town of Kearny, N.J. He was tapping the ball around with his older brother, Jimmy, from the time he was 4. After high school and three years as a psychology major at the University of Virginia, Harkes was recruited for the 1988 Olympic and 1990 World Cup teams. His on-field dazzle earned him an invitation in October 1990 to play with the English squad Sheffield Wednesday, where a thunderous shot past England's top goalie earned Harkes British TV's Goal of the Year award.

At his current club, Derby County, Harkes is all the rage with female fans, who snap up his poster from souvenir shops and send the dapper American provocative letters, all of which are opened and sorted by his stunning half-Irish, half-Japanese wife, Cindi, 25. But popularity in England has not distracted Harkes from his ultimate loyalty to the U.S. National Team. In Harkes's words, there are just three things on his mind right now: "World Cup, World Cup, World Cup."

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