MLS opens second season with more refined outlook D.C. United visits Galaxy in replay of '96 title game

March 29, 1997|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Major League Soccer's fans get their first broad indications tonight of whether the pro league they want so badly to succeed is apt to hit a sophomore swoon or continue the sport's boom.

Five games constitute MLS' first full Saturday schedule, a change from last season that portends most spring and summer weekends to come in the league's second year.

One of those games involves the Middle Atlantic's entry, D.C. United, visiting the Los Angeles Galaxy (10: 30 p.m. EST, HTS). That's the team United defeated, 3-2, in overtime last Oct. 20 to win the first MLS Cup before nearly 35,000 fans in a game-long, chilling downpour at Foxboro, Mass.

League play well into MLS' first season was ragged among 10, in effect, expansion teams, but insightful fans, players and league officials expect higher quality play out of the chute this spring.

"We are infinitely ahead of where we were last year," Kevin Payne, D.C. United's president and general manager, said earlier this week. The team has been practicing since mid-February, has traveled to Japan and Hong Kong and went 6-2 in exhibitions.

Fear not about improved play early, said John Harkes, the U.S. national team captain and United midfielder who returned from six years in England and met his new teammates just six days before opening day 1996.

OK, so a couple teams played MLS' 1997 season opener in San Jose, Calif., last Saturday. But call that a formality, made for TV -- to 130 countries, believe it or not. A small-market team, the San Jose Clash, nipped a big-market team, the New York/New Jersey Metro- Stars, in an 11-round shootout.

Tonight, with all 10 MLS teams on the field, play gets serious in a 32-game season that will be two weeks longer than 1996's. That's just one way MLS, managed unlike any other American pro league, has tweaked its objectives and scrambled to improve on last season's shortcomings.

MLS begins 1997 with one particularly noteworthy goal -- raising attendance by more than 15 percent to 20,000 fans a game, up from last season's 17,416. Which was much better than the 12,000 or so league founders said they needed.

How? By doing away with most low-drawing midweek games and playing 149 of 160 league games on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. Result: League officials say season-ticket sales are up 6 percent.

For D.C. United, which averaged 15,281 at RFK Stadium last year, season-ticket sales are up by about a third and revenue is about 50 percent improved, Payne said.

Another new objective: building skills of the league's American players by permitting another foreign-born player -- for a total of five -- on each 20-player roster. If that sounds contradictory, league leadership says it's only for a couple more years before cutting back again maybe.

Unlike previous attempts at big-league U.S. soccer, of the foreigners MLS added, only one player and one coach arrived with mega-soccer personas.

Walter Zenga is that new cameo player. Zenga, Italy's goalkeeper in the 1990 World Cup, is 37 and has been playing second-division in Italy, but is still name enough to be a gate-builder for last year's Eastern Conference cellar-dwelling New England Revolution, which sorely needed a quality keeper.

Carlos Alberto Parreira is the new $500,000 -- much more than any other MLS field chief -- coach of the MetroStars. He has big-time credentials, not least of which was leading Brazil to its 1994 World Cup championship in the United States. But then Parreira couldn't keep a high-paying job with Barcelona, one of Europe's more glamorous teams.

Among MLS's other 1997 objectives: greatly improved officiating, higher quality TV production and active encouragement of Hispanic fans, who constituted nearly two-fifths of the league's first-year attendance.

NOTES: The 1997 MLS All-Star Game will be played July 9 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., a day after baseball's All-Star Game. MLS will play from the outset with FIFA's newest rule changes, which take effect worldwide July 1 -- goalkeepers must return caught balls to play within five seconds, keepers can't catch teammates' throw-ins and keepers can move on the goal line before a penalty kick is taken.

Pub Date: 3/29/97

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