U.S. soccer can't grow in 2 places

July 06, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

Even as soccer's profile in the United States rises to a point far higher than any previous pinnacle, the sport is confronting a riddle here.

Even as the United States' soccer wonks -- our sporting version of the Flat Earth Society -- celebrate the fact that an estimated 32 million of their countrymen watched the Brazil game and a handful of young American players proved they were major-leaguers throughout the World Cup, their sport is in something of a pickle here.

Is it more important to have a successful U.S. league or a successful U.S. national team?

Better pick.

For now, at least, having both will be pretty much impossible.

For the national team to continue to improve, the best U.S. players will have to go to Europe to hone their skills in the world's toughest leagues. That's how the United States was able to progress from the laughingstock of the 1990 World Cup to a credible team that tied Switzerland, beat Colombia and played Brazil so close in the 1994 Cup.

But without the best U.S. players, the new American pro league, scheduled to start up next spring, is doomed to minor-league status. Soccer will never budge from the bottom rung of the American sports ladder, despite the hullabaloo of the Cup.

In other words, the two heads of soccer's future in this country -- the health of the new league and the improvement of the `D national team -- are butting into each other.

Told you it was a pickle.

Alan Rothenberg, head of the U.S. Soccer Federation, has said again and again that he wants to use the Cup to launch his new league, called Major League Soccer. In one sense, it's the perfect time. Thanks to the relative success of the U.S. team, soccer finally has a face here. For the first time, there is a set of home-grown American stars suitable for marketing.

Alexi Lalas, Cobi Jones, Tony Meola and Tab Ramos are in shoe ads and on magazine covers, playing the star game just like the big boys in basketball, football and baseball. They pretty much played up to their hype in the Cup. (Yes, they won only one of four games and didn't score in their last 210 minutes, but don't complain. That they were competitive was a major victory.)

With these players, the new league would have instant identity.

Without them, the new league would have to try to attract fans with obscure Americans and a few old imports. Good luck.

It is not much of an exaggeration to say that soccer has no chance of elevating its status in this country without a viable pro league giving it a consistent presence on the sports pages. And it is not an exaggeration to say that the success of the new league depends on its ability to get the high-profile American players signed.

Yet such a success would do much to halt the progress the

national team is making.

Here's the problem: The quality of play in the new league will not begin to approach that of the top European leagues. An American who stays home to play easier opponents will not improve nearly as much as an American who goes to Spain, Greece, Germany or the Netherlands and gets kicked around for two or three years, as did Ramos, John Harkes, Eric Wynalda and others between the last Cup and this one.

Question: How does the U.S. best go about improving to the point that it can reach the quarterfinals at the next Cup in France?

Answer: It sends Lalas, Claudio Reyna and the other members of the next generation off to Europe, then sits back and waits for them to come back as seasoned pros.

But the new league just might die in the meantime.

Hmmmm.

Rothenberg, a certified big talker, has promised that the new league will succeed. The plan is for 12 teams, including one in Washington. There'll be games on ESPN and ESPN2 and a championship game on ABC. Lately, he's been trying to downsize expectations.

"We have to make sure people are realistic," Rothenberg said after the Brazil game. "Major League Soccer will not present World Cup-level play week in and week out. We're going to put quality soccer on the field and build it over time. It took the NBA 50 years. It took the NFL 70 years. I hope people will understand that 1995 is only going to be a start."

If he's worth his reputation as a smart, can-do guy, he'll take

some of his federation's expected $25 million in Cup profits and get his guys signed up.

But if the players themselves are smart, they'll head to Europe while the window is open for them to make good money and play in the best soccer leagues in the world.

It's a head-on collision. Something will give way.

Such a pain, success.

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