Pro Soccer Bounces Back - Slowly

A US major league, promised for World Cup, to make belated debut

FOR Americans wondering what can possibly fill the gaping soccer void left by the end of World Cup USA '94, the inevitable question is: ``What's next?'' What is there for new, old, and wanna-be fans to watch in the United States now?

It may come as a surprise to learn that there are already four pro leagues in the US: the American Professional Soccer League, based in Fairfax, Va.; the Continental Indoor circuit, run out of Encino, Calif.; the United States Interregional Soccer League, in Irving, Texas; and the National Professional Soccer League, based in Canton, Ohio.

What still isn't in place is a truly major league. That won't occur until next April, when the curtain is raised on the plainly identifiable, 12-team Major League Soccer (MLS), which theoretically should be operating now.

As a condition of hosting the World Cup, US soccer officials promised the sport's international governing body that it would have a first-division league in place by 1994. The Americans will miss the deadline.

That concerns Micheal Lewis, editor of Soccer Magazine, who says, ``Without a pro league in place, interest in soccer could be like a charcoal fire that burns brightly [during the World Cup] but then goes out. People forget quickly, and a lot will happen, sports-wise, between the end of July and next April.''

Some may doubt the new league will be ready even then. Five locations have yet to be named, and bidders in the other seven only learned of their acceptance shortly before the World Cup began last month.

Teams have been awarded to Los Angeles, Washington, Boston, New York, San Jose (Calif.), Columbus (Ohio), and New Jersey, which will play its games in Giants Stadium in the Meadowlands. An announcement about the remaining league members is expected within the next few weeks.

ABC, ESPN, and ESPN2 will telecast games of the new league, which has yet to sign any players. When it does, it's unlikely that many green-card-toting superstars will be enlisted.

The defunct North American Soccer League went that route in the late 1970s and contributed to what Rick Davis, an ABC and ESPN World Cup analyst and former NASL player, describes as a ``false success.'' Davis recalls playing alongside a galaxy of imported stars, including Pele and Franz Beckenbauer, on the league's flagship franchise, the New York Cosmos.

This all-star cast attracted huge crowds to the Meadowlands, upwards of 70,000 for some games, but ``It wasn't happening in Tulsa [Okla.] and other places,'' Davis says.

``I think we're ready to fill stadiums in the 10,000-to-15,000 range for professional league play'' in the US, says Davis, the general manager of the American Professional Soccer League's Los Angeles Salsa.

Major League Soccer's original goal was for 10,000 season-ticket subscriptions per franchise, but the forecast has reportedly been scaled down to half that in some cities.

MLS plans to build stadiums that seat 20,000 to 30,000. The idea is to have facilities that allow for growth, but also hold potential for creating demand. In the short term, rather than play before vast numbers of empty seats, entire sections will be covered to create a degree of intimacy.

The commissioner of the new league is Alan Rothenberg, chairman and chief executive officer of World Cup USA '94. He was the point man for MLS in its competition with other groups submitting proposals for a new league to the US Soccer Federation. This raised some eyebrows, since Rothenberg is the federation's president.

MLS has taken a novel approach that one rival calls a form of ``socialized professional soccer.'' The league owns all teams and will centralize virtually every aspect of team operations.

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