After American midfielder Preki blasted a soccer ball past Brazil's goaltender last February, the next morning's sports headlines were a gimme.

"Shot Heard 'Round the World: U.S.A. 1, Brazil O."Brazilians seethed, disgusted by the travesty. The shame - losing to the Yanks.

American sports fans' reaction? Most likely yawned and searched for the NBA roundup. Soccer's always been a tough sell here.

Still, a stunned global soccer community had been served notice: On a given day, the Americans are capable of beating the world's elite.

Victory over world champion Brazil seemed all the more incredible because the coach pacing the American sideline was, well, an American.

A Utah-born American at that.

Soccer pundits had long argued a U.S.-born coach couldn't succeed internationally - saying he'd lack "soccer sophistication." (Remember, as recently as the 1994 World Cup the American team was coached by a Yugoslavian.)

Now, with World Cup '98 days away, U.S. coach Steve Sampson stands on the cusp of acceptance.

Prior to the Brazilian match, the Salt Lake native made history by becoming the first American-born coach to qualify the U.S. National Team into a World Cup finals.

He's also enjoyed a 3-0 victory over superpower Argentina in 1995 and a 0-0 '98 World Cup qualifying tie in Mexico City, where the Americans had lost 17 straight.

Few would imagine such global success from a third-generation Utahn. OK, Sampson moved to California before he ever kicked his first soccer ball.

"I only lived in Utah for the first two years of my life," Sampson told the Deseret News, diplomatically adding he frequently returned to visit relatives.

"Unfortunately, most of them have passed away," he said.

Now residing in Agoura Hills, Calif., the father of three admits it was vital to qualify his team for World Cup '98 to silence soccer skeptics.

"I'm a firm believer in an American leading the Americans. I needed to prove an American could get the job done," he said.

Appointed in 1995, Sampson currently holds the best international winning percentage of any national team head coach in the 83-year history of U.S. soccer. This, despite a lofty schedule including more than 20 games against teams set to compete in the 1998 World Cup Finals in France.

The San Jose State grad has already made his mark in U.S. World Cup Finals history. While serving as assistant to then-U.S. head coach Bora Milutinovic, Sampson assumed the task of scouting Colombia, the USA's second opponent in World Cup '94.

His tactical preparation of the U.S. team was pivotal in the 2-1 victory over the heavily favored Colombians, earning the Americans a surprising berth in the Round of 16.

"It was very exciting to go out and do well," he said.

Sampson admits a combination of preparation, execution and maybe a little luck will be needed to advance in France. The U.S. pool includes world power Germany, a skilled Yugoslavian squad and political foe Iran. Only two will make soccer's "Sweet 16."

"What's most important is how we play . . . we'll be playing to win, as opposed to trying not lose," he said.

The USA, Sampson adds, is still a generation away from joining the world's soccer elite. Remember, while soccer may be the world's most beloved sport, only a few countries have ever held the World Cup Finals trophy.

Having a domestic American league helps, Sampson said, pointing to the 3-year-old Major League Soccer association. MLS offers a visible sports alternative for young American athletes maybe leaning toward football, basketball or baseball pursuits.

"To really succeed, U.S. soccer needs to be able to compete for the country's best athletes," Sampson said.

Sampson knows all about competing for soccer fans in a sports-saturated country. Selling the game to fellow Americans "is very challenging and very time-consuming, but it's also part of the job," he said. (It's unlikely any of the other national coaches gathering for World Cup '98 simultaneously serves as his country's head soccer cheerleader.)

Start by enlisting the affections of America's soccer-crazed immigrant community.

After being appointed head coach, the bilingual Sampson initiated a fan campaign to embrace the Hispanic community dubbed "El Equipo para Todos", meaning everyone's team. According to the campaign, if the U.S. plays El Salvador, say, all other Hispanic groups will support the USA.

"We can have a great home field advantage if you can unify Hispanic fans in their second country," Sampson

The campaign has apparently succeeded, as Hispanic attendance, media coverage and atmosphere at U.S. home games have increased.