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Jerry's World

Parity is the keyword of fourth MLS season.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Monday, May 3, 1999) -- Has parity arrived in Major League Soccer, in its fourth season?

D.C. United, the Tampa Bay Mutiny, Kansas City Wizards, and Los Angeles Galaxy were the elite the first two years. The Chicago Fire joined the party last year, with the Mutiny and Wizards dropping out.

There is no elite right now, six weeks into 1999 play. Full-fledged parity depends on whether Kansas City can finally start converting shots -- its total of 104 is No. 1 in MLS -- and snap a season-opening seven-match losing streak.

There's not a lot to differentiate among the other teams.

Chicago in a class by itself? No. At least not to anyone who watched the defending champion Fire struggle to defeat shorthanded D.C. United in a foul-filled match Saturday night. They showed little flair on attack. And the defense fell apart once Lubos Kubik was ejected for a second yellow card. And this was against a team that was missing its two top defenders and its two best midfielders.

D.C. United? The model team has faltered this year, partly due to its success in 1996-98 and resultant financial pressures on the team salary cap limit. The departures of midfielders John Harkes (New England) and Tony Sanneh (Hertha Berlin, Germany) and an ankle injury to defensive midfielder Richie Williams have made the Washington franchise mortal. And MVP midfielder Marco Etcheverry is due to miss several games with a groin injury and Copa America Tournament participation.

Los Angeles? The Galaxy ran roughshod last year in the regular season, scoring a record 85 goals. It has four goals in seven games this year, though that may change under new coach Sigi Schmid.

That's the same number of goals, ironically, as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars have in six matches -- hardly the formula to be drawing needed crowds of 25,000 or more in MLS' two biggest markets.

Columbus? Maybe. Certainly the 4-2 record, all on the road, is noteworthy, but the Crew has yet to show it can be a dominant team on the field.

Colorado? Maybe. The Rapids have balance and depth, and are among the upper-rung in MLS but they don't have elite status yet. No one does.

The Eastern Conference has six teams, any of which can play evenly with the other, though Miami Fusion is a tad shy on talent.

Itís the same story in the Western Conference, when and if Kansas City starts clicking under new coach Bob Gansler.

Quality of play? It's hard to ascertain this early, but certainly defense has taken priority, contrasted with offense the first three seasons. Lack of goal-scoring is becoming a crisis.

The average goals-per-game is a shocking 2.48, more than a full goal lower than the 1998 record of 3.56. The first season, 1996, saw 3.37 goals per game, followed by 3.26 in 1997. This paucity in goals directly relates to the embarrassing number of shootouts -- 17 in 38 games, nearly half.

Attendance, despite the heavy reliance on Saturday nights, continues to be flat -- averaging 14,342, not much better than the 14,312 low that saw games in 1998.

Will parity offset the lack of goals and allow MLS to progress this year at the gate? Tune in during June, July, August, September.

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

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