Almost two decades ago, on a sunny Tuscan afternoon, 22 nervous and wide-eyed young American players made their way into the Stadio Comunale in Florence, Italy.
The U.S. was about to play its first World Cup game in 40 years, but chances are that few American sports fans were aware of the fact.
They knew little about the World Cup. The eye-opening U.S.-hosted tournament of 1994 lay in the future, as did the launch of Major League Soccer. Italia '90 meant nothing to those following the fortunes of the Cincinnati Reds or the Oakland A's in the summer of 1990.
All the same, that game on June 10 marked a seminal moment in U.S. soccer history. It was a first step back after four decades in the international wilderness.
Czechoslovakia was the opponent, and within 25 minutes, Tomas Skuhravy had given it the lead en route to an emphatic 5-1 victory.
"We had to pay our dues," said Bob Gansler, the U.S. coach at the time. "People didn't want to hear that then and maybe they don't want to hear that now."
Bruce Arena, who coached the U.S. at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, put it another way. "The lesson there was that we were light-years away," he said. "We had an amateur team."
In eight weeks, the U.S. again will step onto a World Cup field when it plays England, one of the tournament favorites, on June 12 in Rustenberg, South Africa.
Again, the Americans will be the underdogs, but U.S. Coach Bob Bradley and his players now have the experience of five consecutive World Cups to draw upon. In 1990, Gansler and his young team were simply thrown into the deep end.
"It wasn't so much tactics," Gansler said. "We got a little overwhelmed, but to the credit of our team I think we rallied and put on an awfully good performance" in subsequent one-goal losses to Italy and Austria.
The U.S. World Cup story has been one of peaks and valleys -- alternating between first-round elimination in 1990, 1998 and 2006 and advancing to the second round or beyond in 1994 and 2002. Its overall record since 1990 is a mediocre 3-12-3, with the only victories coming against Colombia, Portugal and Mexico.
So what advice do former U.S. coaches Gansler, Bora Milutinovic, Steve Sampson and Arena have for Bradley in 2010 as he takes his team to South Africa?
"If we go there looking at world rankings and making boastful statements about how we can play with anybody any time and all of that, then we will" not succeed, Gansler said.
"We have come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Embrace the fact that we're the underdog and let the intangibles then work for us."
The mistake made in 2006, Gansler said, was in believing that because the U.S. team had reached the quarterfinals in 2002, the semifinals were an achievable goal four years later.
"Our expectations in 2006, I don't think they were realistic," he said.
So, is World Cup success a matter of coaching, a matter of players or a matter of luck?
"It's all of the above," said Sampson, an assistant under Milutinovic when the U.S. lost to eventual champion Brazil in the second round in 1994 and the coach in 1998 when the team imploded amid angry finger-pointing in France.
"More than anything else I think it's player confidence, player experience and team chemistry."
Arena said the '98 team flunked the chemistry test.
"In 1998, the team wasn't very good [and] psychologically they were not well-prepared," he said. "The make-up of that team was not good. The talented players were poor leaders, they had a lot of issues. It was not a great group of people, in my view, in terms of trying to build a winning team."
Four years later, an Arena-built team made it to the quarterfinals and came within a whisker of the semifinals. Leadership on the field was the difference.
"The way that Bruce used Cobi Jones during the 2002 World Cup is a good example of how a veteran player can be used to really hold a team together during what is a very challenging, emotional period," Sampson said.
Arena said Earnie Stewart was just as influential as Jones.
"We had guys that understood the roles they had to play for the betterment of the team," Arena said. "In 2006, we had a lot of guys like that as well, we just weren't good enough and some players didn't play as well as they could have. You could argue that the team wasn't coached as well. I wouldn't argue with that because we didn't do well.
"My advice to Bob [Bradley] would be, 'Prepare them the best you can and keep them as loose as you possibly can.' You've got to have a group that's playing well and playing for each other. The other part that no one ever talks about is you've got to have a little bit of luck."
There was no MLS when Milutinovic, was coach in 1994. Instead, the U.S. had a permanent training base in Mission Viejo, where the man known simply as Bora worked the players relentlessly.
"Bora turned them from amateurs to professionals," Sampson said. "He was magical in his ability to take pressure off himself and off his team.
"He brought an enormous amount of confidence to a very young group of players, especially against the Mexican national team that we had never had before. That was the beginning of us beginning to compete with them and eventually dominate them."
Arena's side reaped the benefits when it defeated Mexico in the second round in South Korea in 2002.
Meanwhile, 20 years later, Gansler still looks back to the 1990 opener against Czechoslovakia. "Would I like to replay that game?" he asked. "Yes, I would, but that's not the way it works."