. . . signifying nothing to U.S. fans

June 14, 1994|By Bill Tanton

The problem with the way we Americans view soccer and the World Cup is that we think of it as an all-or-nothing thing.

We know that soccer is the most popular sport in the world.

We understand that World Cup competition, which begins at the end of this week, is the biggest sports event in the world -- bigger than our World Series or Super Bowl.

So we ask when soccer will be as prominent here as football, baseball and basketball.

We wonder when soccer will have a league of professional franchises, stretching from coast to coast, drawing crowds of 60,000-70,000.

And we wonder if having the World Cup in the United States for the first time will set off the explosion.

Well, it's not going to happen. Atleast not any time soon. It's not even in the immediate thinking of the soccer devotees and promoters who've spent the past six years getting ready for World Cup U.S.A.

One of those is Clive Toye, a familiar name to anyone who remembers the Baltimore Bays, of the old North American Soccer League.

Toye was the Kenny Cooper of Baltimore before anybody here had ever heard of Kenny Cooper.

Like Cooper, Toye is English-born, a soccer evangelist who came to these shores to convert Americans to the world's No. 1 sport.

Toye was the general manager of the Bays in 1967 and 1968, when people were saying soccer would become the sport of the '70s.

Not everyone in Baltimore is cheered by the mention of his name.

"Clive Toye cost me $2 million," Jerry Hoffberger, who owned the Bays, was to grumble years later.

That's what Hoffberger, then owner of the Orioles, lost in soccer.

He and his Orioles general manager, Frank Cashen, had seen the World Cup in Europe in 1966 -- the year they took over the Orioles and swept the Los Angeles Dodgers to win the world championship.

Sports? Nothing to it. They couldn't miss with soccer, not with all the kids who were playing the game in America.

Now it's a quarter century later and people still are asking if soccer will ever make it here, even with the impetus of the World Cup.

L The answer is neither yes nor no. It's somewhere in between.

"We know we're not going to have 250 million Americans clamoring for soccer after the World Cup," says Toye, who is now president of the New York World Cup Host Committee. "We know that a great percentage of Americans will go on caring only about baseball and football. Fifty percent of Americans don't care about anything.

"But soccer has its niche [the cosmopolitan Toye pronounces it the French way: neesh].

"The game is here. There are 16 million Americans playing now. When we had the Baltimore Bays, there were less than half a million playing. Today more high school and college kids are playing soccer than football. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association says more equipment is bought for soccer in the U.S. than any sport but basketball.

"There's an increase in participants of 8 percent a year. Among adults, there's been 48 percent growth since 1987. The kid players of a few years ago are adults now and we have our first generation of adults who can support professional soccer.

"The point is, we have a base now. We didn't have that 25 years ago."

After the Bays closed shop, Toye became an executive with the New York Cosmos when they signed the great Pele and brought German World Cup captain Franz Beckenbauer here. Between 1977 and 1980, the Cosmos had 10 crowds of more than 70,000 at Giants Stadium.

Ron Newman, another English transplant known here as the coach of the San Diego team that tormented the Baltimore Blast, says the North American Soccer League folded because it didn't get on TV.

Says Newman: "I challenge all the other sports to go without television and see how long they last."

"The NASL failed," Toye says, "because it took in the wrong owners -- a bunch of mini-George Steinbrenners. We had 18 teams. Six were strong, six were doing OK and six were struggling. So the owners voted to expand. That meant we had 12 lousy teams and the league failed."

An announcement is expected tomorrow on the formation of an outdoor professional league next summer in 12 American cities. Toye believes that will be helped more by the base built up over the years than by enthusiasm from the World Cup.

"A great weakness for professional soccer in this country," says Toye, "is the lack of 20,000-seat stadiums. In New York I could fill a stadium that size 20 times a year, but I couldn't fill Giants Stadium."

Toye points to soccer successes in America that are largely unknown. For instance, a team of American women went to China 2 1/2 years ago and won the world championship, but nobody seems to know it. He feels soccer has been covered by the media here "with disinterest or hostility."

Toye says our U.S. National team is respectable, the younger players better than the older ones, whereas the Baltimore Bays had only one American -- Baltimorean Joe Speca.

I asked Toye if he thought indoor soccer has helped the sport in the United States.

"Would you ask John Unitas if he likes arena football?" Toye says. "It's a different game."

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