Feeling overwhelmed by Mania?

If you have questions about new soccer team, we have the answers

April 29, 1999|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

The A-League. Second-division pro soccer. United Soccer Leagues. What's it all mean? Terms unfamiliar, if not entirely new, to some soccer fans around Baltimore come bundled with the Maryland Mania's debut on the road tonight. Here's help in sorting things out:

First, what's the Mania?

It's a new professional soccer team that will play at least 16 league games from now into September at UMBC Stadium. The team's ownership, legally called Maryland Professional Soccer LLC, is a group of largely Columbia-area investors headed by A. J. Ali, 34, an ex-Meade High School player.

Mania owners say they want to build within two years a new, "soccer-specific" stadium in Howard County capable of eventually seating 15,000. The team is actively seeking acreage.

I've heard about Major League Soccer, the "big league" of American pro soccer, but what's the A-League?

If you count mergers of leagues going back into the 1930s, it's the oldest U.S. pro soccer league. It is, in fact, the largest pro league, with 30 teams coast-to-coast, including a couple in Canada. They're divided into four divisions aligned in Western and Eastern conferences.

The Mania is in the eight-team Atlantic Division with the Atlanta Ruckus, Charleston (S.C.) Battery, Hampton Roads Mariners, Hershey Wildcats, Jacksonville (Fla.) Cyclones, Raleigh (N.C.) Flyers and Richmond Kickers.

To save money, teams play mainly others in their conference until playoffs this fall.

The league includes a range of cities and varying measures of fan loyalty. The champion Rochester Raging Rhinos outdrew in attendance several Major League Soccer teams last season and, given a new stadium, are considered likely to move to the MLS in the next few years. By contrast, several other teams struggled to draw 1,000 spectators a game.

Is this minor-league soccer?

The analogy rankles some in soccer because it's imprecise, but yes, think of the league as being American pro soccer's top minor league, pretty much akin in status to Triple-A baseball.

What's imprecise about that?

The A-League is, in world soccer parlance, a "second-division" league, meaning subordinate to the "first-division" MLS in terms of player pay, quality of players, stadium size, financial backing, and recognition by FIFA, soccer's world-governing entity.

That doesn't mean that A-League soccer is a poor product. In fact, several A-League teams have beaten MLS teams in U.S. Open Cup competition the past three seasons. Last season's top MLS scorer, the Columbus Crew's Stern John, was the previous season's top A-League scorer with the New Orleans Storm. Some A-League players, such as the Mania's Clint Peay, have played in the MLS.

Like Triple-A baseball players, A-League players want to get to "The Show," its larger paychecks, as well as a shot at international competition.

The biggest difference between baseball's minor-league setup and soccer's is that major-league baseball teams own all the players and can pretty much move players as they please. Not so in soccer.

First-division MLS's dozen teams have "affiliations" with A-League teams, meaning they may send players down for experience, rehabilitation, or for other reasons. The Mania is affiliated with D.C. United and the Columbus Crew. But A-League teams find and contract with their own players. They can sell and trade their players' contracts.

Where do the players come from, and what do they make?

Typical of most A-League teams, about half the Mania's players have local ties, either through birth or schooling. But others are seeking playing opportunities, several come from the Caribbean, one is from England, another from France.

Mania coach Daryl Gee was the first of many Howard County standouts in the sport, signing and playing for the old New York Cosmos right out of Oakland Mills High School. Bill Stara, his assistant, is a former pro goalkeeper who has won national attention as a highly successful Howard County high school coach.

Team officials won't talk about pay. But it's safe to say no one gets rich in the A-League, owners included, although a living can be made.

Sometimes I hear about the USISL, or more recently the USL, in conjunction with the A-League. What's that about?

United Soccer Leagues, or USL, is a new, simpler name for the former United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues. The USL owns the A-League, the third-division, semipro D3 Pro League, a developmental league for college-age players, the semipro W-League for women, and the I-League, a small indoor league.

Pub Date: 4/29/99

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