Only a few years ago, pro soccer appeared to be on the move in the United States and Canada. Large crowds were turning out in the New York area to see the star-studded Cosmos, and their success was echoed to a lesser extent around the North American Soccer League.
But however much people were led to believe the NASL was on its way, the fact is, pro soccer is in trouble. Most teams are bathing in red ink; attendance has deteriorated; TV has very little interest in carrying games; and the number of franchises has been halved. There were 24 in 1977, 12 this season, and possibly less next year, since the Seattle Sounders have already announced plans to fold.
In Tampa Bay, the Rowdies, once one of the NASL's most successful clubs, have fallen on hard times. Fielding a losing team didn't help matters at the gate this past season, particularly with the newly arrived Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League siphoning off patrons and public enthusiasm.
And in Chicago, people caught up in White Sox mania have all but forgotten about the Sting, even though in 1981 it became the only Windy City team to win a pro championship since the NFL Bears in 1963. In a playoff victory Monday night , the Sting attracted a mere 5,852 spectators, an incredibly dismal figure considering the size and ethnic diversity of Chicago.
It's not as though the league hasn't been trying. Rules have been tinkered with to add excitement; international stars brought in; and an offsetting effort made to Americanize all rosters, to the point of adding a Team America as a separate franchise this season.
Just where to go from here is a difficult question, and a controversial one too because some owners want to keep experimenting with new ideas, while others are of the back-to-basics school.
Some people, including NASL president Howard Samuels, feel the league would have received a big boost if the United States had been named to host the World Cup soccer tournament in 1988. Rather ironically, however, poor attendance and the league's somewhat shaky relations with FIFA, the sport's international governing body, may have been factors in discounting the US bid.
The underlying message of the NASL's struggles is clear: you can't just graft a major sport onto American spectating tastes. True, there are millions of youngsters playing the sport, but it may take years before they grow into paying customers. And even then, there's no guarantee that those playing soccer today will necessarily desire to watch the game in later years. Tip of the hat to Tippy
Perhaps the single most amazing feat of the current baseball season belongs to Baltimore relief pitcher Tippy Martinez, who retired the side on pick-off plays against Toronto. Somewhere, sometime, another pitcher may have produced a similar effort, but Martinez's is the only one on record. And it couldn't have come at a more propitious time - in the 10th inning of a late-August game against a division rival.
Toronto had just taken a 4-3 lead when Tippy entered the game in the top half of the inning. He had to prevent further scoring, and accomplish this task with several Orioles playing out of their normal fielding positions due to pinch-hitting maneuvers earlier in the game. Each time a runner reached first base, he was picked off, paving the way for a pair of homers to win the game in the bottom of the l0th. An Ivy's good fortune
Seven years ago, Brown University and Penn State agreed to meet in football this season. Some observers questioned the wisdom of pitting an Ivy League school, with no football scholarships or spring practice, against a perennial Eastern power, even if Penn State Coach Joe Paterno was certain to show compassion on his alma mater. To make matters worse, Penn State entered the current season as the defending national champion, making the date seem all the more ill-advised.
Up to this point, however, the Nittany Lions have floundered badly, losing by 38 points to Nebraska and then being rudely upset by Cincinnati 14-3 in last Saturday's home opener. This isn't to say the game with Brown won't be a mismatch, but at least the Bruins can be grateful that the game was scheduled this year, and not last. On baseball's Easy Street
The Chicago White Sox enjoy a laughably large lead (161/2 games at midweek) playing in baseball's American League West division. Other teams have produced bigger romps, though. The 1936 New York Yankees won the pennant by 191/2 games to set the A.L.'s cakewalk standard, while the 1902 Pittsburgh Pirates won the National League championship by 27 1/2 games in the ultimate stroll.