Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.

Nothing ever will quite match 1999 for women's soccer in these parts. America fell hard for its national team and saw it win the World Cup final over China in numbers that still boggle the ratings mind.

An average of 17.98 million people watched that July 10 game from the Rose Bowl. That stood as the largest English-language soccer audience on American television until 18.22 million saw the U.S. tie Portugal in the men's World Cup last June.

But the United States-China game took place in a different millennium and officially is ancient history. The United States fell short in the ensuing three World Cups, finishing third in 2003 and '07 and second in 2011, and now is in danger of having the clock run out on an entire generation of players.

Aside from the current team itself, no one wants the drought to end more than the one that set the standard. That includes its coach, Tony DiCicco, who as Fox's co-lead analyst will have a great seat for the final three rounds.

"Absolutely," DiCicco said Thursday as he prepared for Friday night's quarterfinal against China. "This is our team; this is our country . . . All of us want it. We've talked about it. We admire this generation of players."

DiCicco said he "can't imagine" the team's veteran stars not winning one in their careers. Only Christie Rampone still is active from the '99 team. "Every one of those [1999] players wants to see the U.S. be successful," he said.

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The good news for viewers is that regardless of his rooting interest, DiCicco has been anything but a homer in his most visible television role to date. (He worked for ESPN on the previous three World Cups, but not in the lead game booth.)

DiCicco has offered sharp commentary, often disagreeing not only with his co-analyst, Cat Whitehill, but more notably with United States coach Jill Ellis' strategic approach. He has been far from the only one to take issue with Ellis, but no one has a more visible platform from which to do so.

"Even though I'm trying to be neutral in the games, there is a bit of frustration with some aspects of our team play," he said. "We're just underwhelming the opponent. I'm trying to zero in on positives, too. Jill Ellis has created a fantastic defense . . . We just haven't really seen this really phenomenal group of attacking players get unleashed here."

DiCicco offered a detailed breakdown of the technical issues, but the essence of his position is that he would like to see Ellis' team be more aggressive, starting with a higher-pressure defense that might jump-start the offense -- preferably from a 4-3-3 formation rather than a 4-4-2.

"I don't mean to be overly critical, it's just that I have my views of the way to play," he said. "But Jill Ellis needs to build this team in her vision and she has, and if it works, full credit to her. This is not an easy World Cup."

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It certainly has gotten harder since the U.S. first won in 1991 -- with DiCicco as an assistant -- and even compared to '99. That year, China was a finalist. Since then it has fallen on hard times and is a heavy underdog Friday night.

The thing that amazes soccer veterans such as DiCicco, 66, is that soccer, both men's and women's, has come far enough in this country that we now argue about strategy just as we do for any other major sport.

"Isn't it great that we have hard-core sports fans questioning the system being played or personnel being played or who made the final roster?" he said. "In 1991, nobody really cared. That's a sign that this country is becoming much more of a soccer country."

In the case of the undefeated U.S. women, even the style by which they win has come under scrutiny. Much as it long has been for the Brazilian men, they are expected to not only win but do so with flair.

It beats the heck out of indifference.