South Africa, a far-off place on the soccer map today, will host the 2010 World Cup, and teenagers everywhere are fantasizing about the tournament.
But the 2010 World Cup is also a realistic goal for several Boston area players. Talented performers have been here all along, but only recently has this talent emerged on the national scene. Young players from Braintree, Dorchester, and Manchester, N.H., could be matching up with the world's best from Buenos Aires, Madrid, and Milan.
Marlborough's Mike Burns was a starter for the United States in the 1998 World Cup, but seemed to be the exception that proved the rule about local soccer players being unable to rise to national prominence and also raised the question of the absence of inner-city players in the US national team program.
Now, partly because of the ascendance of the Greater Boston Bolts Soccer Club, which won the US Youth Soccer Association Under-15 championship last year, perceptions of the local scene are changing. And players realize they have choices if the US national team does not come calling. Roslindale's Ryan Johnson (Jamaica) and Hyde Park's Kareem Smith (Trinidad and Tobago) could be playing against the US in the 2010 World Cup. Charlie Davies of Manchester, N.H., has committed to the US and fellow forward Sheanon Williams is starring for the US Under-17 team but still could opt for Trinidad and Tobago.
A look at four who could be stars when the World Cup comes around again:
SHEANON WILLIAMS You can't get much more Dorchester than to be born on St. Patrick's Day and be named after Ireland's ``old and wise" river. Williams (his parents altered the spelling to ensure he would not be confused with the feminine version of Shannon) is the leading scorer on the US Under-17 national team.
Williams, 16, also represents the multicultural nature of Boston and could play for the national team of Trinidad and Tobago, his parents' birthplace. In any case, Williams is on a fast track to prominence in soccer. In many countries, a professional club would already have claimed him.
``Sheanon will be 20 in 2010," said his father, Stephano Williams, referring to the World Cup. ``Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley were on the US team at 20 and, hopefully, he will make it."
Sheanon scored his first international goal as the US Under-17s defeated Trinidad and Tobago's U-21 team in Florida last year -- he concluded the year with nine goals in 15 games (11 starts). Afterward, a T&T website questioned why Williams wasn't playing for the Soca Warriors.
``They said he has Trinidadian blood," said Stephano, who left his Cascade, Trinidad, home as a 13-year-old in 1974. ``But the kid was born here and the USA gave him a chance. And we know the US will get back to the World Cup, but we don't know about Trinidad and Tobago, if they will ever get back."
Williams burst on the scene last year, winning a US Youth Soccer national championship with the Greater Boston Bolts and gaining a starting spot on the U-17 team. He and many of his Bolts teammates are outgrowing the Boston area, their talent suited for a higher level. Earlier this week, Williams scored six goals in one day as the Bolts took a 3-0 win over Westenhook United and a 6-0 victory over Bethlehem (Pa.) Premier Knights in the title game of the 30th annual Needham Memorial Day Tournament. And this was the Bolts' U-16 team ``playing up" to win the U-17 division in 60-minute games.
The Bolts' game is tactically balanced, the players display maturity, and Williams adds a lethal finishing touch with his anticipation and athleticism, plus excellent instincts.
``Massachusetts was not known for producing young players but that's changed," said former Revolution defender Francis Okaroh, who is coaching the Bolts. ``Sheanon is up there now and they like him. It takes one or two and all of a sudden they realize they should check out an area. If they come here they will see there are more who didn't get the opportunity."
Williams's first World Cup memories date to France '98.
``That was the first time I was old enough to understand it and I was disappointed because I was rooting for Brazil," he said. ``This time I will be looking at my position closely to see if I can pick up anything new. I still need to work on my shooting, my first touch, the simple stuff you always have to constantly work on.
``I have thought about playing for [T&T or the US] and I feel strongly about both countries. But I'm here. It's hard to make the US national team, but I take that as a challenge. If I work hard and things fall into place, it could happen one day. It's a dream."
CHARLIE DAVIES No local player has had a more spectacular rise and fall than Davies, who was the last player cut by the US team on the way to the U-20 world championships, then sustained a meniscus injury in the first game of the Boston College season.
But Davies, who turns 20 this month, is poised to return to the scene after a highlight-film, two-goal performance for BC in a 3-1 win over the Revolution in a scrimmage last month.
``I have worked real hard to get back to where I was," Davies said. ``The Revolution game helped my confidence and I guess the hard work and the help of the BC trainers paid off."
After the U-20 world championships, Real Madrid made a $1 million offer for US forward Chad Barrett, who had signed with the Chicago Fire. That was how close Davies could have been to the main stage of European soccer. Davies is hoping to return to the US U-23 team in preparation for the 2008 Olympics.
``I think not having the title of being a pro player hurt me with the U-20s," Davies said. ``But I want to leave college on a good note. If I have a good performance this season, it might be time to move on to the pro ranks. The U-23 team will start training after the World Cup and I am looking forward to that and to showing that I can be, if not the best, one of the best forwards in the country."
Davies has a unique combination of agility, soccer sense, and speed. Davies planted an 18-yard bicycle kick into the net against the Revolution in his first action since the injury and has scored three times in five games for the Westchester Flames in the Premier Development League.
``I practiced that, believe it or not," Davies said of the bicycle kick. ``Since I was a little kid, my dad [Kofi] would put crosses in to me in certain situations and, regardless of where it was, I developed a goal-scorer's mentality of not just making good contact with the ball but putting it where the goalkeeper can't get to it."
Davies said he studies videotapes of World Cup matches and will be closely viewing this year's tournament.
``I see the US team as going to Germany with something to prove because they are still not really respected around the world as much as they should be right now," Davies said. ``Other countries look at the US getting to the quarterfinals last time as lucky. I think they have a chance to get out of their group and, if they do, it is going to do a lot for the country soccer-wise in terms of respect."
RYAN JOHNSON Johnson, 21, earned his first cap as a starting left-side midfielder for Jamaica in a 1-1 tie with the US in Cary, N.C., last month.
Johnson was born in Jamaica and moved to the Boston area as an infant. He grew up watching his father, David, play for local teams and joined the Dorchester Youth Soccer program at age 6. Johnson moved to the South Shore United Blazers club and also played at Melrose High School before going on to Oregon State University and the Boulder Rapids Reserves team in the Premier Development League.
Johnson, with the Reggae Boyz preparing for an exhibition against England today, has had an inconsistent start to his first professional season with Real Salt Lake. He displays a soft touch along with size (6 feet 1 inch), speed, and the ability to attack on the left wing.
Jamaica is in the process of revamping the national team in preparation for the 2010 World Cup, and Johnson is among the first of the new generation of players being evaluated.
KAREEM SMITH Smith attended Beaver Country Day, played for the South Shore United Blazers, and was chosen for the US junior programs. But Smith has opted for Trinidad and Tobago's national team and has been with the Soca Warriors' U-21 team.
``It was his decision," said Carl Smith, Kareem's father. ``I would like him to play for the US team but he told me that in the trials he was better than some guys who were chosen; not all of them but some of them. So he went to Trinidad to try, and they gave him a break."
Carl Smith left Trinidad in 1969 and has been residing in Boston since 1972.
``I love Boston and I would like to see Kareem play for America," Carl Smith said. ``Kareem can play, no ifs, ands, or buts about it. I played for Trinidad, but kids today are not like us. They get frustrated very quick, where we would stick it out. They are good kids and there is very good talent around in the US."
There is a third option: Kareem could play for Jamaica, his mother's native land.
Kareem is a solid defender, listed at 6-2, 160 pounds. He is majoring in criminal justice at the University of South Florida and currently performing for the Cape Cod Crusaders in the Premier Development League.
CORNER KICKS: Coming soon, check out the Globe's World Cup blog on Boston.com