What's in the stars for MLS?

Strengths and shortcomings revealed at All-Star break

Judging the future of MLS from the action on the field at the fourth annual All-Star Game would conjure images of matches filled with spectacular goals, razor-sharp passes and besieged goalkeepers flailing about their penalty areas.

The East and West stars did their part and played their roles perfectly. The first goal hit the net in the first 30 seconds, and nine more shots flashed past the gloved guardians in a 6-4 Western win.

Judging by what transpired off the field, MLS would be staring at a bleak picture marred by yawning gaps of empty seats that mirror the reality in several league locations, disquieting problems looming in critical areas, and another event clouded by plain old bad luck.

Its All-Star weekend encapsulated some of the league's strengths, and several of its shortcomings. At the midpoint of a fourth season, the MLS top brass as well as its rank and file face the future with guarded hope and justified trepidation.

Operator-investor Lamar Hunt cited two monumental challenges MLS faces heading into the next century. "Number one, the league does not have a large enough national footprint with only 12 teams," he said. "There are too many important markets we're not in, and there's no interest, no knowledge in those cities.

"Hand in hand with that is the shortage of playing facilities. We can't expand unless we have good facilities.

"Those are not short-term problems. It takes time to do it."

Dependence on doubleheaders

For a doubleheader that also featured an exhibition between club teams Guadalajara of Mexico and Universidad Catolica of Chile, MLS announced ticket distribution of 23,227. The actual body count of fans that attended was closer to 16,000, scattered around a 70,000-seat stadium on a beautiful summer day.

Since it began operations, MLS has piggybacked league games with non-league showcase events, be they men's World Cup qualifiers, foreign exhibitions, U.S. Soccer youth internationals, or Women's World Cup matches.

The league shamelessly counts crowds for all such events in its attendance figures, regardless of how many fans actually view the MLS game. Sometimes, the discrepancy is minimal, as in 1997 when the majority of fans attending a U.S.-Mexico qualifier at Foxboro Stadium stayed to watch the Revs play Tampa Bay.

And sometimes the difference is vast, although quantifying it is nearly impossible. Did a crowd of 43,192 fans come to the Meadowlands May 29 to see the Revs play the Metros, or were most of them there to see Colombia play El Salvador?

"We have no problem packaging some of our games with international games," said MLS Commissioner Doug Logan, "and we will continue to do it if it makes financial and marketing sense."

Such a scenario occasionally swings the other way. When Chicago hosted Colorado May 16 at Soldier Field, much of a crowd announced at 25,201 had departed by the time the U.S. women took the field for a friendly against the Netherlands.

Criticism rained down on MLS July 4. Tens of thousands of fans departed after watching the U.S. women top Brazil, 2-0, in their World Cup semifinal. Crowd estimates for the subsequent San Jose-D.C. United game ranged from 10,000 to 20,000, but the MLS listed its attendance for that game at 73,123.

That mass exodus was seen by many observers as a black eye for MLS, yet ù like the Women's World Cup itself ù the dynamics were probably societal and cultural. Most fans came out to see the women, had spent three or four hours under a blistering sun, and wished to escape the traditional Stanford Stadium traffic snarl in time for backyard barbecues and fireworks.

Given a stadium swarming with screeching young girls, only Cobi Jones could probably keep them there another two hours.

And by decree from FIFA, public address announcements could not refer to the MLS contest.

MLS has scheduled a Toluca-Atletico Nacional friendly to be coupled with its MetroStars-Miami match July 24 at the Meadowlands. This is a shrewd move.

Not only will the doubleheader inflate attendance figures for the Metros and the league, it should offer Colombian fans a chance to see international Henry Zambrano, a former Nacional player, in a Metros uniform. A bigger crowd will also look better on ABC.

These double-dips virtually guarantee MLS will show an increased league-wide attendance from the 14,312 it logged last year. Whether or not a crowd bump actually reflects increased interest remains unanswered, and how many people will be fooled if the Metros continue to stumble on and off the field yet top the league in attendance?

One positive sign is that eight teams are averaging more than 17,000 fans per game. Last year, only three teams topped that figure.

Television tussles

The TV gods meddled with All-Star weekend as well. A crushing blow was dealt when ABC moved its telecast to espn2 to accommodate its coverage of the John F. Kennedy Jr. plane crash.

The foreign club exhibition had to compete with a telecast of the third-place Copa America match, which just happened to match up Mexico and Chile. At least the league was saved the embarrassment of a club exhibition outdrawing its glamour event, for far fewer people watched the second game than did the first.

Several programming changes instituted by the league and Univision have yielded higher ratings. Univision MLS telecasts did not commence until its Mexican League coverage ended, and its games start at 1 p.m. Eastern, two hours earlier than in previous seasons.

The first three Univision telecasts averaged a 5.5 rating, about 50 percent better than last year. The numbers on espn2 also have increased, but ratings on ESPN are down 11 percent from last year.

The competition conundrum

By dragging its feet on the Project-40 allocation of Chris Albright, the league reaffirmed its chronic need to clarify rules, procedures and regulations regarding player distribution.

According to Logan and MLS executive vice president Ivan Gazidis, meetings were held in San Diego to streamline player-distribution procedures. This would include the Project-40 program, incoming foreign players, and players entering the league from colleges and the USL.

The tug-of-war over Albright took up hours of discussion, some of it vehement and bitter. MLS wanted to avoid a firestorm similar to that triggered by the signing of Ben Olsen last year; Olsen basically told the league he'd play only for D.C. United.

Facing competition for Albright from several foreign clubs, including German powerhouse Bayern Munich, MLS aggressively bid for his services as several teams argued.

"It's definitely been a controversial thing," said Albright, who played two years at Virginia and started at forward for the U.S. at the U-20 World Cup last April. "I didn't think it had to be, but it's flattering."

Project-40 is likely to undergo a radical revision as the league bids against foreign clubs for the best young American talent. Albright reportedly will earn a six-figure salary, which is considerably more than the $24,000 league minimum that is the P-40 standard, and has also signed a lucrative deal with Nike.

MLS will face competition from external sources for other players quite soon. Approximately three-quarters of the U.S. national team and Olympic players will come up for contract renewal this season and next. Stern John of Columbus, whose contract expires at the end of the 1999 season, is one of several prominent foreigners sure to attract foreign offers as well.

One U.S. international up for renewal this year is Joe-Max Moore. He earns less than the maximum salary of $247,000, but not a whole lot less.

"I'm not saying I'm going to leave or I'm trying to leave," said Moore, 28. "I've got another five or six years to play, and I have to make the most of it. The next contract really has to be a good one."

Younger Americans like Ross Paule of Colorado see MLS as a possible springboard to foreign riches. "It's a good development plan for me to play in the league a few years, but I do plan to go somewhere else sometime in my career to develop my skills," he said.

The departure of Colorado goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann to English First Division club Fulham underscored the value of good American players to foreign teams. Most of them can come cheaply: Hahnemann's transfer price was reported to be approximately $160,000.

Crew general manager Jamey Rootes sees foreign poaching of players like Brian McBride as a great danger. "We have to do a good job of hanging on to our American players," said Rootes.

"They're a critical piece of the future. It would be a significant blow if Brian were to leave. His face and persona represent so much of what the Columbus Crew is about."

Also up for discussion were three critical components of match procedures: the shootout, timekeeping, and the use of a second referee.

Unlike the countdown clock used in a regular MLS game, the clock at the All-Star Game started at 0:00 and counted up as is the custom internationally.

Logan said it was his decision. When asked why, he said, "I have a macabre sense of humor. It could be prophecy of things to come. Who knows?"

A rash of early-season shootouts reminded fans and journalists of the tiebreakers' controversial underpinnings, but it has many proponents in MLS boardrooms, including Hunt.

"I like it," he said. "I don't think it's perfect by any means. I don't think tie games are very successful, and we can't have an open-ended time slot to play overtime."

Of stadiums and expansion

In San Diego, MLS officially announced it would not expand for next season and reiterated it will pursue the addition of two teams for 2001.

For some reason, the league expansion committee is headed by Ken Horowitz, operator-investor of a Miami franchise that is a textbook case of how not to do it.

MLS is targeting San Diego as one of its potential expansion sites, but the weekend's festivities ù lavish though they were ù echoed with the city's indifference. Make that the indifference of two cities, as a parade in Tijuana two days prior to the match attracted few spectators, and an anticipated throng of Mexican fans never materialized.

More pressing are the league's stadium concerns. Glowing reviews for the new Columbus facility notwithstanding, its Spartan amenities and capacity of 22,500 might not be so readily accepted in most MLS cities.

One team executive sniffed: "That might fly in Columbus, but it won't fly in Denver or Los Angeles or any other city in this league."

But while those skeptics may scoff at the rustics, they must marvel at the revenues. Columbus is averaging more than 18,000 fans per game, and would actually make money if it maintains that figure since it also controls other revenue streams.

In novelties and merchandise, Rootes says the Crew sells at a rate of roughly a dollar per person per game, which is much more than the MLS average. He would not give concession figures, but confirmed the opening-day crowd of 24,741 spent about $100,000 in food and beverages, and the per-capita figures have held firm since the opener.

Both Los Angeles and Colorado, part of the Philip Anschutz MLS empire, are evaluating stadium sites.

The Rapids are eyeing a plot of land on the campus of the University of Denver as one of its possibilities. Galaxy president Tim Leiweke has expressed ambitious plans for a stadium ù minimum capacity 30,000 ù as the centerpiece of a 60-acre development that would include a clubhouse, ancillary fields, and a shopping mall.

The MetroStars, burdened by onerous operating expenses at the Meadowlands, are sitting tight amid a political vortex. Proposed developments in Newark, N.J., and on the existing Meadowlands site are vying for public funds, and plans for a soccer stadium are components of both projects.

"In my mind, where we were playing was one of the worst, Ohio Stadium," said Hunt. "It was just bad for soccer. Playing in big, old stadiums, like we do in Dallas and Los Angeles, is holding the sport back."

The legacy of Logan

The commissioner has been bludgeoned in the press and on the Internet, and cries for his ouster are growing more strident.

His contract expires at the end of the year 2000, and although a few sources confidentially hinted he could be removed at the end of the season, they hastened to add any move is highly unlikely unless a viable replacement is available.

Former U.S. Soccer president Alan Rothenberg is not the obvious choice pushed forth by some Logan critics. If he deigned to accept the post, he would insist on a salary several times more than the reported $250,000 Logan earns. He couldn't run the league from his Los Angeles residence and isn't eager for a move to New York.

Rothenberg also enjoys his limited role as an investor and a member of the board of governors. Running a team, as he tried to broker with San Jose, is a far stretch from appeasing the strident whining of Horowitz and Stuart Subotnick.

No replacement from within the league is readily apparent. Chicago general manager Peter Wilt is highly regarded, and D.C. United counterpart Kevin Payne has a background of soccer success. Probably the top candidate would be Leiweke, but running the Anschutz multi-sports empire in Los Angeles is a much better post.

"What this league needs more than anything is leadership and direction," said a confidential source. "I'm not sure we're getting what we need from Doug, but to be honest, I couldn't tell you right now who might do a better job.

"It would probably have to be someone from outside the league, and who knows when that person might emerge?"

by Soccer America Senior Editor Ridge Mahoney

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