Soccer may be the world's most popular sport, but among professional leagues in the United States, Major League Soccer is a dwarf in a land of giants.
The towering National Basketball Association, venerable Major League Baseball, and the lumbering National Football League all make this tiny, 10-team league an improbable success - even in this sports-absorbed nation.
As the league hits its 1 1/2-year mark with tomorrow's all-star game, it finds a 17 percent decline in attendance from last year's inaugural season. Yet investors and some observers remain confident that soccer will soon succeed in America.
Their confidence rests on two things: the millions of shin-pad-clad children plying the soccer fields of suburbia, and the league's stable structure.
The falling attendance is "to be expected; it's a drop-off, not a disaster," says Roger Alloway, president of the Society for American Soccer History. "It's probably just a factor of the novelty wearing off and the fact that last year's [attendances] were so much higher than expected."
Indeed, MLS drew an average of 17,416 fans a game last year - 31 percent more than forecast. But instead of building on that success, the league has seen a few trouble spots emerge. They point to a disturbing division of league cities into two tiers: those that draw respectable crowds, and those that don't. Of the league's underachievers, the cases of Tampa Bay, Fla., and Kansas City, Mo., are particularly vexing.
Tampa Bay points to the possibility that some MLS teams may be entering an already-saturated sports market. In the 1970s and '80s, the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the now-defunct North American Soccer League (NASL) drew more than 30,000 fans to their games.
Now, average attendance for the MLS's Mutiny is wavering at about 11,000. "The consensus is that it's a soft market because there's so much here," says Bill Ward of the Tampa Tribune. In the Rowdies' era, Tampa Bay's professional hockey, indoor soccer, arena football, and baseball teams had not arrived yet. Now they've arrived or are on the way, and the Mutiny has been squeezed, he says.
In Kansas City things are worse. Last year, a mediocre team drew a paltry 12,901 fans.
This year, the team is in first place, and attendance has slipped to about 8,600.
"Kansas City is a very good example of the problems the league faces," says Grahaeme Jones, a soccer reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
"You've got a competitive team playing a decent brand of soccer ... but it's the wrong city. There are not that many soccer fans in Kansas City," he adds.
Despite the figures, MLS is not concerned. Given time, the markets will develop, says Mark Abbot, MLS director of marketing - and the league is willing to give them time. While the league is losing money, it had expected to.
In fact, MLS doesn't expect to turn a profit for five years.
"One of the great advantages of the owners that we have is that they are financially secure - to put it mildly - and they are long-term thinkers," Mr. Abbot says.
What they see is a demographic El Dorado around the corner - millions of children now playing the sport that will soon pay money for shirts, hats, and tickets. With conservative, prudent financial decisions, MLS thinks it will be around to reap the rewards.
Yet many sportswriters claim that this business model is holding MLS back. To put fans in the stands, they say, MLS needs to open the checkbook.
Wary of paying big bucks for players who might not attract enough fans to recoup the cost, MLS executives have kept a tight rein on expenses - no team can spend more than $1.3 million on yearly player salaries. In a world where the best soccer players are paid more than $4 million a year, many say that big crowds won't go watch the second-rate players who can fit under the $1.3 million cap.
"Unless they start bringing in some big-name players, I just don't see the league drawing more than 25,000 to 30,000 a game maximum" says Mr. Jones.
"The only way they can do that is by gradually pushing that cap up.... It should be about $5 million now and maybe going up to $10 million. You're not going to get huge world stars ... but if you get the second or third tier of players, that's good quality soccer."
Still, other observers worry about escalating costs. The NASL went belly-up largely because the New York Cosmos had the money to buy world-class players, and everyone else drove themselves out of business trying to keep up.
"I don't want to see [MLS] spend itself out of existence," says Alloway. "The general concept of putting a limit on who they will go after is necessary. What they're saying about many players is that it would be nice but we can't afford it."
And if that makes MLS a second-tier league, so be it. "We shouldn't hold MLS to such a high standard that it has to be a tremendous success overnight," says Will Lunn, president of the United States Soccer Hall of Fame in Oneonta, N.Y. "We need to give the league many years to work it out."