Taking Another Run At Pro Soccer in US

Investors hope fans remember World Cup, not NASL

FOR the last two years, the Greensboro (N.C.) Dynamo has won the professional United States Interregional Soccer League (USISL) championship. So how many fans showed up at their games this year? The Dynamo's average attendance was only 1,200 people.

Why is attendance so low? ``We're not certain ourselves,'' says club secretary Bridget Macpherson, who notes that 8,000 children play organized soccer in the area.

If the Dynamo, a good club in the USISL, can't attract fans, why should big-time pro soccer be more successful?

The answer will appear in 1996 when Major League Soccer (MLS) begins its one-year-late opening season. Organizers are hoping that 16 months from now Americans will remember the excitement of the World Cup, which attracted more than 3.5 million spectators. Sixty-five percent of the tickets were sold in the US, but a significant number of fans came from overseas.

The new league plans to have at least 10 teams in place for the start of its season. It will compete against the American Professional Soccer League, which started in 1990 and has seven teams.

Some of the MLS investors are sophisticated businessmen, such as Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs football team, and John Kluge of Metromedia. They have invested $5 million each for a franchise and an investment in MLS. The league is capitalized with $50 million.

The investors are hoping the new league will be more successful than the North American Soccer League (NASL), which stopped playing in 1984. ``The failure of the NASL scared off a lot of potential investors,'' says Marc Rapaport, a Los Angeles investor in a local MLS franchise team, ``until the World Cup.'' The Cup showed that ``maybe things have changed'' since that last league try.

One of the major differences, says Mr. Hunt, who owned the NASL's Dallas Tornado Soccer Club, is that there will be more American players on the teams. The MLS plans to limit each club to 3 or 4 foreign players.

In addition, Hunt says the NASL made the mistake of playing a lot of games in baseball stadiums. ``It's an incompatible field,'' he observes. It also meant soccer games were played at odd hours, since baseball came first. The MSL now hopes to play its games from April to November in stadiums that cater to football and soccer.

The MSL also plans to keep salaries relatively low compared with the remuneration paid to such NASL stars as Pele. Each club plans to start with a salary cap of $1.3 million to be split among its 18 players and four reserves. This would result in an average salary of about $70,000.

The players believe the cap will be flexible, says Paul Caliguri, who played on the US World Cup team. He expects the top American players to strengthen their negotiating position by playing overseas. Alexi Lalas, for example, is currently playing for Padova in Italy where soccer sources say he makes about $300,000 per year.

Of course, salaries are relative. At the Long Island Rough Riders, a USISL team, salaries range from $1,400 to $3,000 per month for a six-month season. The Rough Riders played this season at Mitchell Field in Plainview, N.J., where they lost the league semifinals this year to the Dynamo in double overtime.

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