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Rothenberg has presided over blossoming of American Soccer.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Tuesday, August 18, 1998) -- He's mentioned in the same breath as Pete Rozelle, the most influential figure in professional football history. Alan Rothenberg has similar status in soccer as Saturday he ends a far-ranging eight-year term as president of U.S. Soccer Federation.

When he arrived in 1991:

* The United States hosting the 1994 World Cup was in jeopardy.
* There were three commercial sponsors for the federation.
* First-division professional soccer had been absent for two decades.
* The women's team was in its infancy.

Times have changed dramatically under his leadership, with soccer on track -- despite the immense popularity of football, baseball and basketball -- to earning a significant niche on the American sports scene.

Not only have the '90s been unparalleled in development of the sport, the groundwork has been laid for even more. Most important will be formation of a major youth soccer infrastructure designed to radically improve the performance of young Americans and put them on a level plane with teenagers from the rest of the world, where soccer is the No. 1 sport.

Through his vision, his passion, his energy, his promotional abilities, Alan Rothenberg became the most influential person in U.S. soccer history. He has his share of critics as most strong leaders do.

He stepped on toes in the run-up to the 1994 World Cup and derisively was called the sport's czar. But the event itself drew an unprecedented 3.5 million attendance -- despite many media predictions of failure -- and is regarded as a model for World Cups, past and future.

In fact, it is very possible the United States will get a second World Cup -- probably in 2014 -- as a result of the '94 success.

Rothenberg, a lawyer, is an optimist, and has been successful in portraying a positive outlook for the sport no matter what the situation or the audience. "He makes you feel better," one colleague said. "His background (in sports management), his confidence allows him to lead. He's incredibly persuasive. He knows how to relate to the media as well as the business community. And he's generally right."

Rothenberg was instrumental in getting millions of dollars in financial support for U.S. Soccer, and that may be his most lasting legacy for the sport. From three sponsors in 1990, there are two dozen, with a total outlay of more than $10 million annually. National team games have become a true event with proper staffing and heavy television and media coverage.

In addition, Nike last year agreed to a clothing contract that involves an estimated $120 million spread through the next decade. And then there is this year's IMG marketing-Nike pact, with educated guesses putting that impact at $100 million-$200 million for the same period.

The money thus appears available for developing American youth -- but the questions remain: Is there sufficient interest in the sport in the first place? Is there the administrative and coaching talent to fully develop the talent?

Rothenberg-founded Major League Soccer is in its third year, with 12 teams, significant television exposure, and settling in at 14,500 average attendance. This is above projections, but is the same as last year, not approaching 20,000 as some in MLS had predicted.

Support of the women's national team has mushroomed, with an estimated $2 million spent for a six-month-long residency camp prior to the 1996 Olympics, won by the United States, and more of the same expected next year leading up to the 1999 FIFA Women's World Cup, hosted by the United States.

Rothenberg protege Marla Messing is executive director of the tournament, which figures to be a precursor to a first division women's professional league in 2001.

The men's national team has had its ups and downs, and he has been directly involved in the hiring and firing of coaches. Bora Milutinovic was named as coach in 1991, and Rothenberg looked like a genius when the United States stunned Colombia and advanced to the second round in 1994.

He reluctantly dismissed him in 1995, however, saying a more development-conscious coach was needed. Turned down by two foreign coaches, he hired Steve Sampson after the Americans made the Copa America semifinals under the former assistant's direction.

Rothenberg fired Timo Leikoski as Olympics coach later that year, replacing him with Bruce Arena. The national team flopped in the 1998 World Cup, and he has been heavily involved in talks for a successor to Sampson, to the distress of some in the federation who think the decision should be made by his successor.

Critics complain about his ego, and even friends say he is not lacking in this area. He will forever be called the Seven Million Dollar man, which is what he received for compensation for the World Cup after saying for years leading up to the event that he was not on salary. Compounding the public-relations mistake was the fact the World Cup Organizing Committee initially put out a news release saying he had received a $3 million bonus, but omitted that he also was getting $4 million in deferred compensation for 1990-95.

Defenders of the pay package, while acknowledging it was presented poorly, point out that the World Cup under his leadership brought more than $70 million in profits to U.S. Soccer Federation, to be invested and disbursed for the growth of soccer throughout the nation.

Despite the World Cup success, he barely won re-election later in 1994 -- which showed opinion within the soccer community on him was divided, not as supportive as outside the community.

Rothenberg helped within the past year to try to resolve a decertification threat from the U.S. Olympic Committee, which said restructuring was necessary so that U.S. Soccer had more direct responsibility for activities under its aegis, and that athletes needed more representation on governing councils. This appears to have been accomplished with relatively little turmoil though some have grumbled about losing autonomy.

Final action is likely Saturday at the annual U.S. Soccer meeting in Maui. Some feel it's a shame that the federation's bylaws limit the presidency to eight years and thus remove him from office in the midst of a major transitionary period in the sport.

But while Rothernberg was the founder of Major League Soccer, he has had little to do with running it, that task ably handled by Commissioner Doug Logan and deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati.

He figures to remain influential in U.S. Soccer as a past president. A strong international role also is possible. A member of the CONCACAF Executive Committee, he is close to world soccer governing body FIFA president Sepp Blatter, and it is not inconceivable his advice would be sought on commercial aspects of the sport worldwide.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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