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Jerry's World

MLS’s invisible accomplishment, kudos for grass at Giants Stadium, and other comments.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Thursday, September 30, 1999) -- Major League Soccer has two teams in the CONCACAF Champions Cup semifinals, a huge event that the vast majority of Americans is unable to see.

Fox Sports World and Fox Sports World Espanol have the exclusive United States broadcast rights -- which makes the games available to about five million persons. There's not too many areas we know of where people can watch the game at home -- or any other place, for that matter.

Want soccer to grow in the United States? Two outstanding MLS teams in North America's biggest club tournament are invisible on the tube. The attendance at Las Vegas is in the 6,000 to 7,000 range, another disappointment.

And the narrow field (where Nevada-Las Vegas plays football), reported to be 65 yards wide -- not to mention the rock-hard condition of the pitch - is a disgrace for any soccer game, much less a championship event.

The games have been tightly fought; the players have done their job. CONCACAF (North America-Caribbean-Central America) has come up short. Just like world soccer governing body FIFA did at the recent Confederations Cup.

Major League Soccer should take considerable credit for the decision by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority to install natural grass for the entire year in Giants Stadium, beginning in 2000.

At seven-figures' expense to MLS, grass has been put in during soccer season, or at least the first 75-80 percent of it, then replaced for artificial turf in late August for the major tenants -- the New York Jets and New York Giants of the National Football League.

MLS has been persistent in its demands that the sport be played on natural grass, so teams could pass the ball with some degree of accuracy, not on the artificial surface that is so hard that it also discourages tackles.

It was Major League Soccer that paid $1.2 million to install the experimental grass-tray fields used in recent years at Giants Stadium. Football players are nearly unanimous in hating to play on artificial turf, saying it increases the chances of short- or long-term injury.

New York Jets coach Bill Parcells has questioned whether the grass -- installed in 6,400 trays with underground heating and cooling -- would last for an entire football season. But the system stood up during severe testing in recent months.

Final decision has not been made on who shares the $3 million cost to install the permanent field; estimated annual maintenance is $400,000-$500,000.

MLS was not present at the 2000 grass announcement, but it was the small-fry soccer folks who were most responsible for Giants Stadium next year going full-time grass. Players in both sports will be forever grateful.

The New England Revolution is moving up on the New York\New Jersey MetroStars. With the departure announced Thursday of Walter Zenga, they now have gone through three coaches in four years. Steve Nicol, 38, coach of the A-League Boston Bulldogs, has taken over the reigns for the final two games of the regular season, with the slumping Revolution one point out of the playoffs.

The MetroStars are with their fifth coach, Bora Militunovic. They are the two most disappointing teams in MLS - this year and for the first three seasons, too.

New England tried to capitalize on Zenga's popularity stemming from his successful run as a goalkeeper in 1997 -- but the former Italian national team starter had no coaching experience prior to taking over late in the 1998 season.

The Revolution was moderately successful at the start with his strong defensive system, but they collapsed with the trade of Edwin Gorter, the family-induced departure of Richard Goulooze, and the injury to Dan Calichman, all in mid-season. This was a disaster to a defense that never got over the ill-advised losses after 1997 of Francis Okaroh and Alexi Lalas.

Injuries hampered the midfield the first half of the season, and no one ever stepped into the playmaker role, a problem from the start of this franchise. And the goal-scoring up front failed to materialize.

U.S. fans can not get enough of its world-championship women's team. The crowd in Denver to watch the 6-0 rout of Brazil was 25,099, double what the Major League Soccer team there averages.

Columbus, site of the U.S. Women's Cup opener Sunday, has been sold out for two months, at 22,500.

Kansas City may draw three times what the MLS team averages, with more than 27,000 tickets sold for the October 7 match. And Louisville, with the best match-up (against Brazil), has 32,000 tickets sold -- and counting.

Does this mean a women's professional league is a slam-dunk? No. But it does show there is considerable interest in this team, these players -- and there may be no better chance than now for such a league.

Let's hope the soccer community and, more importantly, the business sector is cognizant of this golden opportunity.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at

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