Foreign Players: Missionaries in a Land of Soccer Infidels

Roberto Donadoni has seen things that many of his American teammates here can't even imagine.

As a midfielder for the Italian soccer club AC Milan from 1986 to 1996, Donadoni played in front of tens of thousands of devout fans winning virtually every trophy in European soccer along the way.

He was a world-class soccer star. He was a national hero.

How different US-based Major League Soccer must be for him and a number of other foreign players.

While MLS has made significant steps toward respectability in its 1-1/2 years, it remains largely a business venture contrived to meet a market demand, not a natural outgrowth of a nation's passion for the game.

Still, a number of foreign players who have been on some of the world's top clubs have made their way to American shores to play the role of missionary in a land of soccer heathens.

"It would be unfair to come to the US expecting the league to measure up to the old and established leagues of Europe and South America," says Donadoni, now with MLS's New York/New Jersey MetroStars. "The league is like a newborn baby, and it needs time to grow."

Alain Sutter is here to help the process along.

As a former midfielder for the Swiss national team and for Germany's most storied club, Bayern Munich, Sutter took a pay cut to play in America.

And like many of MLS's European imports, he says his desire to be a pioneer for soccer here was the driving force behind his move to the US.

"I've been in Europe for 13 years, and I know what that's like. I wanted to come to America," the Dallas Burn midfielder says.

"I'm excited to give the experience I have from Europe to the players over here ... [the league's] going to get better and better, and I want to be a part of that."

As someone who has been here for both of its seasons, Donadoni has been able to see this progress. While he admits that the best MLS teams would have trouble with even the worst teams in Europe's top leagues, he remains positive.

"There are some very good players in this league and there are some very young players," he says. "On a good day, the level is quite high, on a bad day, well, it's not so good ... but I've seen some improvement in only one year."

Besides, MLS offers many of these players a unique opportunity - to play soccer in a place far-removed from Europe's aggressive paparazzi.

"In Italy, a big-name player can't have his privacy or his freedom," says Walter Zenga, a former goalkeeper for the Italian national team and for Inter Milan, now with the New England Revolution. "Here, you can go in the city and no one disturbs you."

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