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COMMENTARY

Future is now for U.S. soccer

(Published July 1, 2002)

By JONATHAN TANNENWALD

Staff Writer

The United States national soccer teamís historic run into the quarterfinals of this yearís World Cup tournament has put soccer in the spotlight, at least for a moment.

The question now on the minds of soccer fans across the country is how to keep it there for a while and get it into the American sports psyche along with football, baseball, basketball and hockey. This question is especially pertinent in Washington, because this city is blessed with two great soccer teams, D.C. United and the Washington Freedom.

The simple answer would be that on the heels of the World Cup success, the cross-marketing ESPN has done between the World Cup and Major League Soccer, the menís professional league here in the United States, will lead to an increased awareness of MLS, higher attendance and television ratings, and increased corporate sponsorships. But that probably wonít happen to a very high degree.

The downside of MLS having lost $250 million over its six-year history is that the league doesnít have the money right now that it really needs to aggressively market its stars to the fans of the cities in which they play. This is partially a result of the leagueís single-entity structure, in which the league owns all the playersí contracts, thus eliminating free agency and other ways to grow revenue on a club-by-club basis, at the expense of parity on the playing field.

Make no mistake that parity is a good thing: the last two champions of the league finished in last place the year before. Both cities, Kansas City and San Jose, have seen increases in ticket sales and other revenues since winning the championship.

MLS needs to let its new stars, particularly 20-year-olds like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, go to the teams in Europe which have already put money on the table for them, so that they can refine their skills at a higher level.

MLS may be able to get $20 million, perhaps more, from contract negotiations with European clubs for its players. Even if the league becomes known for a while as a developmental league for the European giants, it can take heart in the fact that the best clubs in Brazil and Argentina canít keep their players from crossing the Atlantic anymore either.

The real key for the survival of soccer in this country is whether or not the various youth programs here can bring forth more Donovans, Beasleys and the like. More children in the United States play soccer than any other sport. MLS just signed a marketing agreement with the American Youth Soccer Organization, one of the largest governing bodies of youth soccer, a crucial move.

Young athletes in this country need to be shown that professional soccer is just as viable a career path as baseball or football, even if the big money isnít quite there yet. MLS also needs to have the courage to go out to these youth leagues Ė and to high schools and colleges across the country Ė to find the talent that will keep the U.S. national team stocked with good players who can perform at the international level. There is no question that this talent is out there; MLS and the U.S. Soccer Federation now have to find it.

Perhaps the biggest untapped resource for soccerís future is in the inner cities. The District of Columbia has a role to play here. Soccer is a very simple sport ó all you need is a round ball and something to mark off a goal line, and you can play. You donít need $200 cleats, or a $70 jersey, and the field is pretty much the same size as a football field.

The D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association has a high school soccer league; it needs more promotion, especially in the local media, and financial resources. The areaís rapidly increasing Hispanic population, which turns out in big numbers for soccer events here (often to root against D.C. United and the U.S. National Team), should be encouraged to play the game if they care about it off the field.

Athletes who arenít quite tall enough to play basketball or not quite bulky enough to play football should be encouraged to play soccer ó thatís how Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff, both stalwarts on the National team, found their careers in an Atlanta suburb where football was the only game in town.

For soccer in this country, the future is now. Itís time for Major League Soccer, the USSF, AYSO and the other youth organizations in the United States to come together and make this American dream a reality.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator