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It Seems To Me . . .

How Sophisticated Is U.S. Soccer Audience?

By Robert Wagman
Special to SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON (Friday, September 11, 1998) -- It was H. L. Mencken who once said "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." Perhaps, but I believe that Major League Soccer may be trying, by underestimating the sophistication of the American soccer audience.

It has become a widely accepted maxim that MLS' survival depends on the development of high quality American players. This is repeated over and over, by league officials, by the media, by the powers-that-be in the United States Soccer Federation. It was said almost as many times during World Cup coverage as the fact that Monday Night Football has a new starting time this season. It's the kind of thing that seems to make sense. But I think it is wrong for a number of different reasons.

High up on my list of soccer memories was a Sunday in June, 1980. I remember sitting in Washington's RFK stadium, watching the Washington Diplomat's Johan Cruyff gather in the ball at the head of the box and bear down on goal. He had one defender to beat, the New York Cosmos' sweeper, Franz Beckenbauer. They may have been two players past their primes, but you would not have known it on this play. Cruyff put at least three world class moves on Beckenbauer, who stayed with him to the end. Finally, Cruyff slotted the ball into the corner, inches from the post. Later he said it was as good a goal as he had ever scored.

I was far from alone at RFK that day. More than 54,000 showed up to see the match. It was not some special match, not a Soccer Bowl nor an MLS Cup nor a World Cup match. It was just a regularly scheduled North American Soccer League match on a sunny Sunday afternoon. What's more, it was being televised.

Recently, a highly regarded soccer pundit wrote that the reason that the NASL failed was a lack of U.S. players to draw in American fans. We could spend many columns discussing why the NASL folded. Simply put, it was a victim of inflated payrolls and inflated corporate expectations, not a victim of fan apathy. In the late 1970's crowds of 40,000 for regular season matches -- no concerts, no fireworks, no special events, just soccer -- were common in places like Minneapolis, Tampa, Vancouver and, yes, Tulsa.

On that June 1st Sunday at RFK, 54,000 people did not come out to watch Ricky Davis or any of the other American players. They came to see Cruyff, Chinaglia, Beckenbauer and the other marquee names on the field.

Which brings us back to MLS. American soccer fans today know the difference between good soccer, and soccer being played to lesser standards. Each week, they watch matches in the Premiership, the Bundesliga, Serie A, Champions League, UEFA Cup and Euro 2000 qualifying. They know what professional soccer played at the highest level looks like.

Let's not dwell on whether MLS attendance is above or below what was projected in its infamous business plan, and it is obviously way behind in at least some markets. The idea being pushed is that all will be well so long as the League can survive until we reach the point that this country is developing numbers of first class players, then MLS will thrive I think that there are twin fallacies at work here.

One is the kind of borderline racist idea that in the U.S. you will only draw from an ethnic fan base until the majority of star players are red, white and blue. Last week I talked about the National Hockey League in terms of whether parents and young athletes will forgo college for the right youth program leading to a professional career. Now look at the NHL from another perspective: the packed NHL arenas from Boston to Florida to California and stops in between. These fans are paying top dollar to watch the best in the world, even though most NHL locker rooms resemble meetings of the U.N. General Assembly.

Then too, when America starts producing young world class players, what would give rise to believe that MLS will be able to afford them. Already MLS is losing young Americans like Frankie Hejduk, and probably Eddie Pope, who will be joining a dozen quality Americans playing in Europe. Will MLS, as it is structured, be able to bid against European powers, or even ordinary clubs, for the services of the top young U.S. players that the League says its future depends on.

I believe that what U.S. soccer crowds want to see, is quality soccer. MLS must improve its product on the field from year to year. That should be its absolute priority. To do so, it is going to have to figure out a way to compete for talent in the world market, whether a player was born in London, Paris, Rome or Pittsburgh. And it should go after talent, no matter where it can be found. To do otherwise badly underestimates the U.S. audience and, I believe, invites disaster.

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.