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Large midweek exhibition crowds give MLS food for thought.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Monday, July 20, 1998) -- Two Wednesday crowds, neither for a regular-season Major League Soccer game, are of considerable significance.

1. The Chicago Fire and UNAM (Mexico) Pumas drew 28,716 fans for their exhibition, won by the MLS team 1-0. That's nearly three times what the Fire draws for midweek MLS games in Soldier Field.

The reason for the large attendance? The appearance of the Mexican club team -- along with the presence of goalkeeper Jorge Campos, who played for the Fire one half, for his Mexican club team Pumas the second half.

Chicago has a huge Mexican population, and the consensus has been that a top international player is needed to solidify that hugely supportive soccer ethnic base.

Campos may not be the best goalkeeper in MLS but he is good enough to start for the World Cup team of Mexico, which saved CONCACAF's bacon with a strong performance in France '98. In fact he was brilliant in the 2-1 second-round loss to Germany.

Chicago has taken care of its large Polish population with three international slots allotted to ex-Poland star midfielders Peter Nowak and Roman Kosecki and forward Jerzy Podbrozny. Throw in unheralded but outstanding central defender Lubos Kubik from the Czech Republic. All four have played well, particularly Nowak and Kubik.

The media in recent days has been speculating about Chicago getting striker Juergen Klinsmann. One report said the defensively strong Fire has more than adequate goalkeeping now from Zach Thornton, and that the German striker could replace Campos in the future.

It also mentioned the large German population in the Chicago area -- and the fact that Chicago has averaged 18,659 with Campos not available due to Mexican team commitments except for one match.

Klinsmann, though, reportedly is interested only in the West Coast, where his American wife is from. Los Angeles is thought to be the No. 1 choice, but that venue appears closed for now with the Galaxy's acquisition of Carlos Hermosillo (Mexico).

San Jose Clash would appear to be the other option, being the area where his wife attended high school. MLS officials say the Klinsmann talk is premature, that any signing probably would be for the 1999 season, not later this summer.

Too expensive? Perhaps, but adidas or some other MLS sponsors might feel it worth their while to have Klinsmann in the United States, which would have nothing to do with salary cap limitations.

And maybe he could be with the Fire as a teammate of Campos. Think of the crowds the Fire would draw with that combination. And what team would stop a Nowak-to-Klinsmann combination on offense?

Tune in later.

2. The Rochester (N.Y.) Rhinos drew a capacity 13,732 for the 3-2 exhibition loss to New York/New Jersey MetroStars.

The second division A-League team is interested in joining Major League Soccer, and with crowds like that, a case is being made. But one big hurdle remains.

The Rhinos have averaged 10,800 fans in 36 games at the new Frontier Field in two-plus seasons. That's considerably ahead of big-market MLS laggards Kansas City Wizards (7,633 this year) and Tampa Bay Mutiny (8,025 this year). And it's within 1,000 of three other teams the Columbus Crew, Miami Fusion and Dallas Burn.

MLS Commissioner Doug Logan -- who earlier had looked askance at talk about Rochester because it's not a big TV market -- now says the western New York city would be the No. 1 choice for expansion, with one provision: It needs to have a soccer-only stadium with at least 20,000 seats and room to expand to 36,000.

That's a big if for a community with a strong heritage, highlighted by its support 20-30 years ago for the Rochester Lancers in the now-defunct North American Soccer League (NASL).

Rochester officials have met with New York State government leaders about aid, perhaps through the Community Enhancement Assistance Program. But no assurances have come from local officials for help. Monroe County already owns one stadium (Frontier Field), where the main tenant is the Triple-A baseball Red Wings, and it's doubtful it would want to have a second facility.

There’s no Lamar Hunt has surfaced in Rochester -- yet.

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

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