Mania looks for a home Soccer: The area's newest pro team wants to settle in soccer-rich Howard County, but so far the club has been given the boot.

June 18, 1998|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A. J. Ali's ideas for resurrecting professional outdoor soccer in the Baltimore area seem to be bursting out of his head -- and his garage office.

He has the franchise for a top-level minor-league team and envisions it playing in a gleaming 12,000-seat stadium packed with corporate sponsors, concession stands and team merchandise, planted in the local hotbed of soccer fanaticism -- Howard County.

"It's just a perfect match, economically and culturally," Ali said of Howard County. "It's really where we want to be."

If only Howard County wanted the team to be there.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker won't let Ali's team build a temporary stadium at the county-owned Cedar Lane Park. Now team investors say the chance of finding a permanent Howard County home are in peril.

The rest of Ali's vision for creating the area's newest professional soccer team has largely fallen into place. He purchased a minor-league expansion franchise from the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues for $150,000 and named it the Maryland Mania.

He has a coach, Darryl Gee, who came out of Columbia youth soccer programs and Oakland Mills High and went on to have a successful professional career. Team tryouts are scheduled for September, with the inaugural season to begin next spring.

But Ali is the president of a team without a home. He is now scouting sites in Baltimore, Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties.

The only certainty is that the Mania won't play next year in Howard County, home to nine of the team's 10 investors and the place whose soccer-oriented demographics sparked the idea for team in the first place. The Columbia-based partnership formed to bring professional soccer to Howard County will field a team, but somewhere else.

"It was a source of pride to us to have it in our back yard," said Chris Cotter, who owns an Ellicott City advertising agency and was the team's first investor. "To have it rejected was like your fiancee telling you she cheated. We still want to get married, but how can we trust them anymore?"

"We're really upset by it," Ali said in the Mania headquarters, a wood-paneled garage office attached to his home in Columbia. Now, he adds, he has little choice but to take the team elsewhere.

"I don't want to sound like a Bob Irsay, like I'm threatening to leave town with millions of dollars, but if they don't want us, we'll have to go where we can get the best deal," he said. "For economic reasons and for personal reasons, this is really where we want to be."

The numbers tell why. The Soccer Association of Columbia, which manages recreational leagues for boys and girls, has more than 5,200 active players, according to association president Jim Carlan.

Other youth leagues bring Howard County's total enrollment in soccer programs to as many as 8,000.

The phenomenon has existed since Columbia's founding, said Gary J. Arthur, county recreation and parks director.

"Per capita, I think there are more people playing soccer in Howard County than any other county in the region," he said.

Ali helped a business associate in Atlanta reorganize a minor-league soccer team, then decided last year to get one for himself. A former player in the Air Force, he pitched the plan to local investors as a Howard County initiative that could bring prestige and money to the area.

He won an expansion franchise in pro soccer's A League in November and has since put his sales career on hold to work full-time for the Maryland Mania. The A league is the top minor-league organization in the country, a feeder to Major League Soccer teams. Ali is pursuing an affiliation with the D.C. United in Washington.

His goals include a vast marketing and promotional campaign, corporate investors and a new playing facility -- at least partially publicly funded -- with restaurants and a "fun factory" of games for soccer fans.

County officials rejected the team's proposal for a temporary stadium, saying the games would invite too much noise, traffic and litter to the neighborhood.

Ecker said he would still listen to the team's ideas for a temporary or permanent field, but Ali said he has taken the first step and the next is up to government.

"Howard County would have to step up in a big way and say they want us for it to happen," he said.

Ali's Howard County plans were foiled by several adversaries, but high among them were the ghosts of Baltimore's professional soccer teams. Since the 1980s heyday of the Baltimore Blast ended with the old Major Indoor Soccer League's demise, professional and pseudo-professional teams in the area have changed owners, changed names and rarely approached the Blast's attendance or profits.

The outdoor Maryland Bays -- a vestigial remnant of the Baltimore Bays, whose history dates back three decades -- once played in the same Howard County park that the Mania was eyeing. That team folded in 1991.

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