Watch Out, Baseball, Here Comes Soccer

EVEN if Major League Baseball resolves its labor dispute before next spring, it still faces fresh competition from soccer. Major League Soccer, a new 10-team league, is expected to have considerably more staying power than other failed predecessors, partly because greater numbers of youth soccer players and their families now offer a potentially strong fan base. A burgeoning Hispanic population also may help.

With its failure to get up and run immediately after the 1994 World Cup tournament, hosted by the United States, the MLS may have blown an opportunity to ride a wave of public interest in soccer. A second wave may occur next summer, however, when women's soccer makes its Olympic debut in Atlanta.

The US women's team is one of the best in the world and could win the gold medal. First, however, a controversy must be resolved. Nine of the team's top players are currently embroiled with the US Soccer Federation over the terms of their Olympic participation. The federation reportedly has offered to pay the team $250,000 if, and only if, it wins the gold medal, an arrangement the disgruntled athletes find unacceptable. The women want a bonus for silver or bronze medals as well. The sides are talking, well aware that the dispute could jeopardize Olympic preparations.

The American men's team, which has never advanced beyond the first round of the Olympics, has historically done little to drum up US soccer excitement. The latest World Cup team, however, made its farthest advance in decades and now the US Soccer Federation has moved to strengthen the Olympic squad (the under-23 national team) by naming Bruce Arena head coach. Arena has led the University of Virginia men's team to five US championships in the last seven years. Some of his players - John Harkes, Claudio Reyna, and Tony Meola - have been national-team players.

Touching other bases

* Pop quiz: Of the 197 countries invited to next summer's Centennial Olympics in Atlanta, only two didn't accept. Can you name either of them? (See answer below.)

* One of this writer's sharpest memories of the Southwest Conference, which closed its football doors for the final time Dec. 2 after 81 seasons, is admittedly quirky. It occurred in Boston in 1974. Amiable University of Texas publicist Jones Ramsey arranged for the Monitor to have a private interview with Longhorns coach Darrell Royal, whose team was making a rare New England visit to play Boston College. The legendary coach was intent on relaxing and conducted the interview in his hotel suite, sprawled on a couch in T-shirt, socks, and boxer shorts.

* No, you're not dreaming. The Florida Panthers really are the best team in the National Hockey League, for the moment at least. Meanwhile, Old Guard clubs like the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins are struggling.

* Now Bo knows books. In a happy footnote to news about this year's Heisman Trophy award, Bo Jackson, the 1985 Heisman winner from Auburn University, set a good example for youngsters by collecting an undergraduate degree this month in family and child development. Given his two-sport professional fame in football and baseball and his success as a product endorser, Jackson clearly could have dispensed with his college work and lived comfortably forever after. He's a guy with an eye on new goals, though, and reportedly aspires to act on TV and in movies. Jackson's athletic retirement came last April. By the way, Eddie George, the 1995 Heisman winner, is two quarters away from earning a degree in landscape architecture at Ohio State.

* To set the record straight, running back Eddie George is the fifth Ohio State player to win college football's Heisman Trophy for individual excellence, not the fourth, as earlier reported in this space. Archie Griffin, the only two-time recipient (1974-75), joins George and Les Horvath (1944), Vic Janowicz (1950), and Howard (Hopalong) Cassady (1955).

* Quiz answer: North Korea and Afghanistan. North Korea has abstained from Olympic participation before (in 1984 in Los Angeles and 1998 in Seoul) and is known for its isolationist policies. Afghanistan is wracked by internal conflict.

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