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American Pro Soccer Gets Another Shot at Success

Starting tomorrow, US stars and modest goals may triumph

'YOU are cordially invited to be a part of history," promises the sound chip-equipped invitation to Major League Soccer's inaugural game this Saturday.

As festive as this opener may be, the match between the San Jose (Calif.) Clash and the visiting Washington, D.C., United only sets the stage for the question of the hour: Can a top-level pro soccer league become a fixture of America's sports landscape?

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Naysayers point to the North American Soccer League, which lasted from 1968 till its final lights-out in 1984.

But Seamus Malin, the sport's leading American television commentator, says the NASL enjoyed "tremendous success" before it flamed out, attracting large crowds in a number of cities. The New York Cosmos, for example, drew more than 60,000 fans to Giants Stadium on several occasions in the late 1970s.

Malin grants that the NASL was a "Hula Hoop league" with limited long-term appeal given its heavy reliance on imported stars. Like many in the American soccer community, he anticipates that the 10-team MLS will succeed because American stars will be in the ascendancy and the league has taken a down-to-earth approach.

"Its mission," Malin says, "is to establish itself as a modest, intelligently run entity interested in eventually becoming a fifth major sport" in the United States. But it is not blaring that " 'We have arrived,' " he says.

In fact, Alan Rothenberg, president of the US Soccer Federation and chairman of the new league, says that after three years of hyping the 1994 World Cup tournament and its sellout crowds, he's trying to ratchet down expectations. He's concerned that Americans might make snap judgments.

"I'm afraid that we'll get 10,000 or 12,000 people a game, which is our target," he told Soccer magazine, "and someone in the public through the media will say, 'Ugh, this league is going nowhere.' "

In the Eastern Conference, Washington is joined by the New England Revolution, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, the Tampa Bay Mutiny, and the Columbus (Ohio) Crew. In the Western Conference, San Jose keeps company with the Colorado Rapids, Dallas Burn, Kansas City Wiz (as in "Wizard of Oz"), and the Los Angeles Galaxy. Chicago, host to the '94 World Cup opener and home to the sport's national governing body, has no team. Nor does St. Louis, a youth-soccer stronghold.

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What appears illogical may reflect the care the league has taken to identify stable franchise situations. The desire to create a solid foundation and secure multiyear sponsorship and TV (ESPN) deals is responsible for the MLS's delayed start. Play originally was scheduled to start last spring, but the league wasn't ready.

As a condition of hosting the World Cup in 1994, the US was supposed to have a first-division league in place that year. When it didn't materialize even in '95, anxiety grew about the failure to capitalize on World Cup momentum and diminished interest in major league baseball. And this year the 32-game MLS season overlaps Atlanta's Olympic Games in July.

Malin, however, says the delays have been advantageous. They distanced the US public from the euphoria and excitement that surrounded the month-long World Cup.

To generate a sense of excitement and intimacy with much smaller crowds, the league has adopted a novel strategy. Teams in nine cities will use colorful tarpaulins to cover vast expanses of empty seats, effectively downsizing football stadiums. "To expand, we just have to roll back the tarps," says Sunil Gulati, MLS's deputy commissioner.

Ultimately, Gulati says, the league would like to play in new soccer stadiums. "That's clearly going to take some time," he adds. "In part, it depends on the success of the league." So far, Columbus is the only city committed to building a new facility.

Gulati cites several reasons why he's confident Major League Soccer will succeed: ever-larger numbers of youth players and soccer-minded parents; the growing number of world-class American players; positive ripples from the '94 World Cup; and a single-entity business structure designed to avoid the out-of-control spending that hastened the NASL's demise.

Investors operate but don't own the teams. Centralized control falls to the league, which has tried to evenly distribute star players and put a $1.13 million cap on each club's payroll.

Talented imports, such as Colombia's Carlos Valderrama and Mexico's Jorge Campos, have been signed by the new league. Much of the job of selling the league, however, rests on the shoulders (and insteps) of American stars like Alexi Lalas, John Harkes, and Tab Ramos, who are among the many US national team and World Cup veterans populating MLS rosters.

"Lalas is just the kind of person who could make or break this league," says Anson Dorrance, the women's soccer coach at the University of North Carolina. Soccer has always had trouble courting the US media, he adds, but the well-educated, fresh personalities on MLS teams may captivate the press this time.

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