Major success?

Mike Woitalla reviews the opening season of Major League Soccer and suggests that football followers in the US may have got what they've been hoping for

For roughly two-thirds of the money that Newcastle United spent on Alan Shearer, Sunil Gulati acquired enough players for an entire league – Major League Soccer. Gulati teaches economics at Columbia University – is there room in the class Mr Keegan? – but is better known as the deputy commissioner of MLS.

Before the inaugural kick-off last April, Gulati travelled the world with about $20 million to spend on transfer fees and signing bonuses. He retrieved foreign-based US national team players, a handful of impressive Latin Americans, a few Africans, and even Italy's Roberto Donadoni. The 200 players needed for ten teams were rounded out by looking under stones in US semi professional leagues. And Gulati came back with change in his pocket. Guess what? It worked pretty damn well.

Ask LA Galaxy fans, who got to cheer for magical Salvadorean midfielder Mauricio Cienfuegos; Jorge Campos, the most exciting goalkeeper of the century; and Ecuador's Eduardo ‘El Tanque’ Hurtado, who’s big as a house but has a delicate touch and scored 24 times. The Galaxy also had Cobi Jones, who may have failed at Coventry, but he’s a heart throb in his native Southern California, plays dynamically on the wings, and hey, he’s played in more World Cup games than Shearer.

MLS brought genuine professional soccer back to the United States for the first time since the NASL died in 1984. To say it was eagerly awaited is gross understatement. US soccer fans have been starved. With only a little help from tourists, we bought a World Cup record 3.6 million tickets in 1994.

The first MLS season ended on 20th Oct on the flooded pitch of Foxboro Stadium near Boston, where DC United defeated LA Galaxy 3-2. Despite a continuous downpour and 70 km winds during the game, some 35,000 fans gathered at the neutral site. Eddie Pope, who makes less than £25,000 a year and still goes to college, scored the golden goal. It capped United’s comeback from a two-goal deficit and a season that exceeded expectations.

The league expected its ten teams to average 12,000 fans per game. The final figure was in excess of 17,000. Ninety-nine of the league’s 160 regular-season games that were played on weekends averaged 21,000.

Desperate as American soccer fans may be – they pay $20 to watch the FA Cup in smoky Irish pubs at 7 o’clock in the morning – they do demand some quality. And MLS soccer on the whole was decent. We saw a surprisingly good amount of entertaining, skilful play. Gulati didn’t sign Latin players only to draw Hispanic fans, but also because he wanted flair. DC United’s Bolivian Marco Etcheverry certainly had that, his wonderful left foot even managing to set up all three goals in the final despite the weather.

We had dismal teams, like the San Jose Clash, the New England Revolution and the Colorado Rapids – coincidentally (?) all coached by products of the English League. “There’s a lot of crap games in Europe, too,” said Clash forward Eric Wynalda, the American who played four years in Germany. This isn’t to say that the quality mustn’t improve. Many young American players are college products, an extension of the youth game that prevents encounters with seasoned pros, so crucial to the development of 18-to-22-year-olds.

So the league has increased the foreign player limit from four to five for the next four seasons. A fair proposition, as long as the extra spots aren’t used on the second-rate lower division players that proliferated in the NASL. After years, the NASL did limit foreign players, forcing teams to play at least two Americans.

Bobby Smith of New Jersey remembered taking the field alongside Pelé for a play-off game. The first three names announced over the public address were three Americans: Shep Messing, Rick Davis and Smith. “Jeez, one of us actually belongs here, which one of us is it?” he wondered.

Ah, the NASL days. Clive Toye, who left Fleet Street to work for the New York Cosmos and lured Pelé and Beckenbauer in the 1970s, said the NASL died because the “lunatics took over the asylum”. Those lunatics were team owners who jumped on the bandwagon when they saw that the Cosmos VIP room had Mick Jagger and Henry Kissinger in it. The fact that they’d want to be near the Vietnam Christmas Bomber, the man who forever discredited the Nobel Peace price, tells you something about them.

When the star-struck rich boys started losing money – easy to do when you know jackshit about the game – they jumped ship. That’s not supposed to happen this time, thanks to the “single-entity concept”. The league raised some $50 million from investors who operate, but do not own, teams. So the league signs and owns the players, hence the chores of Gulati, and distributes them among teams, through allocation and drafts. Theoretically, if there are lunatics, they will be kept in line.

Each team had a salary cap of $1.2 million for its whole team. That’s a third of what Bayern Munich pays Jürgen Klinsmann alone. The minimum salary is $24,000, the maximum $175,000, though sponsors’ endorsement deals bolster the incomes of big names like Donadoni and Campos.

In its first year, the league lost about $18 million. It expected to lose between $24 and $28 million. Fortunately, the league has attracted some deep pockets, including Lamar Hunt, son of a Texas oil billionaire, who was a founder of the NASL when it came about in the late 1960s. That Lamar, who lost about $20 million in the NASL in 15 years, would come aboard MLS signalled to others that this league might actually have a shot.

Hunt runs two teams, the Kansas City Wiz and the Columbus Crew. The Crew had the league’s fourth best crowd average of 18,000, proving that the game can draw even where there isn’t a large Latino population. Of course, there's not a whole lot else to do in the Ohio city, which has no other major pro franchise. More than 1,700 people entered the contest to pick a nickname. Crew was chosen, even though only one person picked that name. Anyone who checked the club’s phone number – 221-CREW – would have gotten a clue how much their vote counted.

But the fact that soccer is making it in Ohio, the heartland of American football, tells you something about the sea change in American tastes. Not long ago, soccer was a foreign sport, to be resisted. In 1970, Toye was asked why the Cosmos gave away so many freebies at games. “Because in this bloody country,” he answered, “Americans think that any guy who runs around in shorts kicking a ball instead of catching it has to be a Commie or a fairy.”

Americans don’t always embrace popular culture from abroad. One percent of the movies we watch are foreign, while 80 percent of the movies Europeans watch are US made. But salsa now outsells ketchup, and more children play soccer than Little League Baseball. In the news lately is 15-year-old Jarrett Payton, son of the greatest gridiron running back, Walter Payton, who compiled 5,000 more yards than OJ Simpson (and has led a much quieter retirement).

Of gridiron football, Jarrett says, “It's kind of boring. [Soccer] is exciting. It never stops. It keeps on going.” It certainly stays in the news here, and not just because of MLS. Bill Clinton's daughter Chelsea is a big fan and criticised NBC for not showing more of the US women’s gold medal run at the Olympics. Clinton challenger Bob Dole courted the votes of ‘Soccer Moms’ during the second presidential debate. He said he understood their problems. ‘Soccer moms’ are considered a possible swing vote in this election and newspapers are filled with editorials about women identified by their chore of having to drive children to games and practices while holding down jobs.

Newspapers have also been paying attention to MLS. This has much to do with the emergence of writers and editors, in their 30s, who grew up playing soccer and don’t have the soccer aversion of the old-school writers. The ancient cigar-chompers who embrace the dying sports of boxing and horse racing and beleaguered baseball are moving on and leaving desks open for the soccer-friendly.

Baseball, of course, still gets much more attention. But one day in June, the Los Angeles Times had two soccer stories on its front page and put the Dodgers’ move into first place on page three. An MLS doubleheader with a US-Mexico game had drawn 92,216 at the Rose Bowl.

The big crowds were key in getting MLS media attention. The weekly Sports Illustrated, with a circulation of 2 million, had instructed writers to take a sarcastic slant on soccer coverage. When I was asked to string for its daily publication during the Olympics, I was told only to bother sending stories if there was a riot or a player’s mother won the lottery and “he decided to quit soccer”.

The magazine covered the opener and wrote about MLS the next time only to report on gimmick-signing Andrew Shue, the Melrose Place actor who saw 91 minutes of action in 32 games, but finally noticed the crowds – after Time magazine declared MLS a winner – and ran a glowing article in September. “A real kick” it announced. And MLS’ American players now appear on cereal boxes, MTV and The David Letterman Show.

So, after a year, it all looks pretty good. Will the good fortune continue? That could depend on Sunil Gulati’s ability to control the asylum.


Matters of Fact

The Worst Coaches It’s not difficult to make the MLS playoffs. Ten teams play 32 games and eight qualify for post-season play. Englishman Bob Houghton and Irishman Frank Stapleton, coaches of Colorado and New England respectively, didn’t make it. Houghton said before the season that he didn’t need Latin players to draw in Denver’s 50,00o Hispanics, just good soccer. His idea of that was hulking defenders, the offside trap and long balls. Colorado lost most of its games, Houghton lost his job, and the Rapids had the league’s worst attendance.

Stapleton started the season by dumping one of his allocated star players, the former Italian international, Giuseppe Galderisi. He relegated another fan favourite, the Brazilian, Welton, to the bench, and went to war with Alexi Lalas who is, for better or worse, the States’ most popular player. When Lalas wanted a release for Olympic team duty, Stapleton  said, “playing internationally for your country is one thing: this Olympics is a different thing altogether.” Sorry Frank, the Olympics are sacred to Americans, and now you’re unemployed.

The Best Reformation Tampa’s Roy Lassiter’s goals haven’t always brought him luck. When he scored a game-winning goal for the USA on national TV last year, a North Carolina detective recognized his name, because Lassiter had been charged with breaking and entering, larceny and forgery years earlier. But he'd fled to Costa Rica, where he was playing in the First Division. Once hauled back in, Lassiter was given thirty days in jail. The 27-year-old then led MLS in scoring. And he wasn’t even a suspect when more than £50,000 went missing from his club’s coffers in midseason (the director of finance got arrested).

Baggio? No Thank You The MetroStars tried to recall the glamour days of the Cosmos by hiring their former coach, Eddie Firmani. He may have known where the light switches were, but how out of touch he was became apparent when he drafted some of the more renowned stiffs in the US game. His first pick was Matt Knowles from the indoor league, who would be envious of Lee Dixon’s ball skills. Questioned about his player choices, Firmani snapped, “Oh, don’t come all that crap about Hispanic players . . . give me five Batistutas, I’ll use them all.” Asked if he would like Roberto Baggio to replace Roberto Donadoni during the European Championships, he said,“No, I wouldn’t want Baggio on my team.” Firmani didn’t have a team by the season’s halfway point.

The Worst TV You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to get a TV job in the USA. You don’t even need the ability to construct a decent sentence. Of the 150 MLS games broadcast on TV, 26 were shown national on cable network ESPN, where analysts like Bill McDermott would explain the game: “The chances are really starting to flow now backwards and forwards because of quick one-touch balls out of the backfield and a change of flow from right back to the left wing corner flag and consequently Ben Iroha is getting deep for the San Jose Clash.” In the final, summariser Ty Keough reminded us that “the physical edge can be a double-edged sword”.

From WSC 118 December 1996. What was happening this month