Thank Rothenberg for level of pro game in U.S. Outgoing executive raised sport's profile, too

August 24, 1998|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Time will tell, but over the weekend the man who may prove to be American professional soccer's Moses left office.

Alan I. Rothenberg's transition from eight years as U.S. Soccer Federation president to owner of the Major League Soccer franchise in San Jose, Calif., was compressed in most places to a sentence or two.

He deserves better.

Because Rothenberg, 59, used his maximum two terms to revitalize at the pro level a game that, when he became its leader in August 1990, was at its nadir in the United States, toying with bankruptcy, devoid of leadership and run by amateurs.

On Saturday, he turned over to his successor, Denver kidney specialist Robert Contiguglia, an aggressive, complex agenda aimed at winning the World Cup by 2010 and formidable resources to pursue that goal.

Inheritor of a $5 million budget in 1990, Rothenberg yielded control of a larger, more professional federation with a $35 million annual spending plan, plus sponsorship and TV deals expected to generate as much as $500 million over the next decade.

From the factionalized, demoralized cluster of regional, semipro leagues he inherited, Rothenberg passed on Major League Soccer, a 3-year-old, world-sanctioned pro league and a minor-league system feeding into it.

And from the national men's team of college players and semipros that made the 1990 World Cup on a fluke, Rothenberg turned over a fully professional team that has been to two more World Cups, along the way beating Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Colombia, England and Mexico.

The women's national team won the 1996 Olympic gold medal and will be host to next year's third Women's World Cup; a women's pro league probably will follow in 2000 or 2001.

Thus, some say the high-profile, big-picture Los Angeles lawyer warrants mention in the same breath as the NFL's Pete Rozelle and, perhaps, the NBA's David Stern as their sports' most effective leaders.

"Rothenberg's performance record gives him respect in the American sports community that no soccer figure ever has had," said Soccer America, the sport's primary publication.

Even those who gripe about Rothenberg's substantial ego and forceful (some prefer "dynamic") leadership acknowledge he made a lot of positive things happen despite mistakes, now mostly forgotten or forgiven.

Seminal to his record, Rothenberg brought off, big-time, the 1994 World Cup finals in this country. By far, the competition drew the biggest crowds ever to watch a final round, during a scorching June in a baseball-, basketball- and football-loving nation that most elsewhere in the world thought could do nothing but flub the event.

Under fire for delaying a pro league's start, Rothenberg created more critics by saying he was leading the Cup effort for free. Actually, his deal was tied to the event's success, and he got $7 million, a sum that still rankles some of the thousands of volunteers mobilized to staff the Cup's operations for free.

But Rothenberg parlayed the Cup surplus -- some $50 million -- to create, among other things, Major League Soccer, the FIFA-mandated cornerstone of pro outdoor soccer now striving for fans and acceptance in this country. Applying lessons Rothenberg experienced as owner of franchises in two failed pro leagues, MLS seems sensibly run, its audience clearly defined, expectations pragmatic, television revenue modest but increasing and salary cap tight.

As '94 World Cup chairman, Rothenberg wrote: "The future success of pro soccer in the United States will rely on step-by-step development. Indeed, soccer is a sport rich in tradition and history, and we must do all we can to help the game find its proper place."

Time will tell his exact place in the sport's history. But at the very least, Rothenberg guided U.S. soccer closer to that promised land than anyone else.

Pub Date: 8/24/98

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