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Complete archive of Robert Wagman's It Seems to Me.

It Seems To Me . . .

MLS officials go before Supporters Summit.

By Robert Wagman
Special to SoccerTimes

(Tuesday, November 10, 1998) -- In the meeting room of a small motel on the outskirts of Pasadena, Calif., Major League Soccer commissioner Doug Logan, deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati and other MLS officials made a kind of Daniel into a lion’s den performance.

The group appeared the day before MLS Cup ’98 at the "Supporters Summit," the first of what all involve hope will be a several-times-a-year gathering of representatives and members of supporters’ organizations, backing not only MLS teams but A-League teams also.

Generally speaking this was a group of super fans, who not only live, die and bleed soccer, but who are among the most knowledgeable to be found in this country. Many of them are not happy with various directions that MLS is going, and this was their opportunity to let Logan know it, live and in person. I must say he acquitted himself admirably. He met every question with style and wit, and when he knew his answer was not the one his audience necessarily wanted to hear, he made his case without any ducking.

The complaints were predictable: shootout, clock being kept on the scoreboard, football lines marking up the fields, etc. Logan’s answers were generally predictable, but several were interesting.

"We need the shootout for marketing purposes," he said at one point during a long exchange with audience members all of whom oppose the shootout. "To draw the non-soccer audience we need a result. Ignoring one loud comment of "a draw is a result," he went on to say he could envision a time when MLS is firmly enough established to allow draws in regular season matches.

He went to great lengths to point out that every deviation from the way matches are held in Europe are fully sanctioned by FIFA. He said, for instance, he expects to see time kept on stadium clocks in general usage eventually. He went on to say that if FIFA was to ask MLS to experiment, say, with using two referees, the league would definitely consider it. The suggestion was met with groans.

Probably the most acrimony was shown about the controversial subject of player allocations. There exists among the fans the belief that some teams are favored by the league when it comes to getting players, while other teams, especially league-run (Dallas and San Jose, who have not had owner-investors), and small-market teams, are given short shrift.

Gulati, who is basically in charge of player allocation, fielded this one. He pointed out that players assigned directly to teams, either through allocation (usually foreign players) or so-called "discovery" players, have generally been made based on which teams need help. There have been a few exceptions, he admitted, basically marquis players like Carlos Hermosillo who would only come into MLS if they could play in a specific city where they have ties.

Also controversial around the League has been the assignment of rookie-of-the-year Ben Olsen to champion (Washington) D.C. United. Gulati explained that getting Olsen to leave college and into Project 40 was considered key to getting a half dozen other young players to join Project 40 also. Olsen wanted to be near the University of Virginia so he could finish school, and he wanted to play for his college coach, Bruce Arena.

"So we let him go to Washington," said Gulati, "and when they heard he had come in, a number of players who had been sitting on the fence came into Project 40."

How will player allocations be made in the future? "The way they are now," said Gulati. "We will look who did well, who did poorly, and they will be served first."

But he also admitted that if a player has enough potential drawing power, he will still call the shots. "We have a player living here in Orange County. If tonight Jurgen Klinsmann comes up to me and says he has decided he can play a few more years, but it has to be in LA, then we’ll accommodate him even though that probably means moving some Galaxy players to other clubs.

D.C. United General Manager Kevin Payne interjected some interesting comments into the debate: "The is pretty general agreement that the three clubs the League has tried to help the most are New England, the MetroStars and San Jose. Yet look how they are doing."

He also echoed a comment made earlier by Gulati that the problem on a number of teams has been poor picking by the teams themselves from the list of players available to them for allocation. "Several GMs passed on Marco before we took him," Payne told the audience referring to MLS most valuable player Marco Etcheverry.

Gulati nodded and smiled and named a few taken before the Bolivian midfielder. Most are no longer in MLS, and the list brought groans from the audience.

One of the most interesting personnel questions came from a member of the MetroStars fan group who asked if the League would allow a coach to cut a high-profile player, in an obvious reference to the MetroStars’ Alexi Lalas. Gulati, said yes, if (and in the salary cap world of MLS this is a huge if), if the team is willing to eat his salary.

"We’re living by budgets, we’re not going to make exceptions," said Gulati. "If you cut a player, you get spoon fed his salary for the length of his contract."

Payne also made a telling point when he told the audience "what you do to build soccer in this country is just as important as what they do in the league office. We have no culture of soccer here, it is up to you in the supporters organizations to help develop that culture."

Bob Wagman wrote a nationally syndicated political column for Scripps-Howard for many years. At the same time he has covered soccer in North America for British and South African newspapers since the days of the North American Soccer League. His "Football In America" column now appears regularly in British newspapers. He can be e-mailed at MobileWag@aol.com.

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