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John Haydon: Optimism follows up-and-down ‘97.

(Tuesday, January 6, 1998) -- American soccer was dominated this year by two stories: the United States national team's quest to reach the 1998 World Cup and Major League Soccer's second season. Both the U.S. team and MLS struggled, but ultimately found success.

After the Americans earned only a point with a dismal 1-1 tie against Jamaica at Washington’s RFK Stadium in October, many wondered if they would qualify for the finals in France and if coach Steve Sampson was the right man for the job.

But Sampson made some shrewd moves, calling up a few veteran players such as Roy Wegerle and sequestering the team for three weeks at Big Bear Mountain in California. The Americans (4-1-5) responded with a scoreless tie at Mexico and a 3-0 win at Canada.

Now the tough work begins. The U.S. will face Germany, Yugoslavia and Iran, all formidable opponents, in the first round of the World Cup. On paper, it would seem the Americans are destined to play three games and board a plane leaving France. But upsets are common in soccer and there is much more parity between national teams now because so many international stars compete against one another in Europe's top leagues.

Don't forget the surprises in the opening round of the 1994 World Cup, when Ireland upset Italy, Saudi Arabia beat Belgium, and the U.S. defeated Colombia.

Sampson knows he must find new blood for his team, which is full of aging and injury-prone veterans. One hopeful sign is the current form of youngsters such as Jovan Kirovski and Claudio Reyna, who are playing well in Germany's top league, which is a lot more competitive than MLS.

This is not intended to demean MLS. The quality of play in the league is certainly improving, but there still are too many mediocre players. The problem for MLS is that foreign stars simply cost too much. The United States has to develop a strong youth program in order to cultivate quality players. Luckily, a large chunk of the $120-million, eight-year deal that United States Soccer Federation struck with Nike this year is earmarked for youth development.

Meanwhile, MLS continues to survive and expand. Two new teams, the Chicago Fire and Miami Fusion, start play next season. D.C. United continued to play attractive, exciting soccer in 1997 and won its second title with a 2-1 win over the Colorado Rapids before 57,431 at RFK, the second biggest crowd to see a soccer game there.

On the down side, two of the team's most popular players -- Raul Diaz Arce and Mario Gori -- were arrested in Columbus, Ohio, after a woman accused them of rape on August 16. Both pleaded not guilty and remain free on $500,000 bond apiece. The trial is set for January 20.

MLS attendance figures slipped this year, dropping 16 percent from 17,416 per game to 14,616 in 1997. "We have to have the patience and wait this thing out until we get it great and right," said MLS commissioner Doug Logan. "We are going to take small steps and resist trying to get instant answers for everything."

One step forward was the league's six-year, $5-million contract with ABC and ESPN, which will guarantee 47 games on English-speaking television.

The league lost some star quality when Italian midfielder Roberto Donadoni, the league's most fouled player, went back to A.C.Milan and Richard Gough returned to the Glasgow Rangers in Scotland. One so-called star, Branco, a hero of Brazil's 1994 World Cup team, was an embarrassment for the New York / New Jersey MetroStars, getting three red cards in his short stint with the club. His coach, Carlos Alberto Parreira, who led Brazil to the 1994 World Cup title, couldn't inspire the MetroStars, who failed to reach the playoffs.

MLS continues to bleed money, losing $14 million in 1997. "Racing to break even would be a stupid move," Logan said. "If making sure soccer takes its rightful place in the panorama of sports in this country and has longevity means breaking even in our sixth or seventh year, we will do it."

The U.S.women's team continued to dominate its opponents in 1997, as it prepares for the 1999 World Cup. The team went 16-2 this year, losing only to Germany and Brazil.

Here are the recipients of my end-of-the-year awards:

Coach of the year: D.C.United's Bruce Arena. Arena likes to win, and win in style.

MLS player of the year: Eddie Pope. If Pope maintains the form he has shown the past two years with D.C. United and the U.S. national team, he may be invited to play for one of Europe's big teams. The World Cup will be the place for him to showcase his talents.

All-World team: Goalkeeper: Kasey Keller (United States); defenders: Paolo Maldini (Italy), Dunga (Brazil), Roberto Carlos (Brazil); midfielders: Andreas Moller (Germany), David Beckham (England), Paul Ince (England), Zinedine Zidane (France); forwards: Ronaldo (Brazil), Gabriel Batistuta (Argentina), Dennis Berkamp (Holland).

Goal of the year: Roberto Carlos' bending free kick against France in the Tournoi de France. From 35 yards, Carlos hit the ball with the outside of his left foot, creating tremendous backspin that curled the ball around France's defensive wall and past goalie Fabien Barthez.

John Haydon is soccer columnist for the Washington Times and can be e-mailed at haydon@twtmail.com.

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