Want to know the most surprising thing I learned over the weekend? MLS spent more than $40 million on player acquisitions and salaries in 2000 and now spends one-third less than that today (according to a league source who definitely knows such information). That explains why four new ownership groups have signed on in the past two years, but it also clarifies why MLS has turned its focus to developing and retaining cheaper U.S. talent (look at the success of the mostly homegrown Revs with the league's lowest payroll) at the expense of signing the bigger names of the '90s (Jorge Campos, Marco Etcheverry, Peter Nowak, Roberto Donadoni, etc.). League honchos see the Chivas USA signings of Paco Palencia and Juan Pablo García as a signal that it's time to move back a bit in the other direction.
Just Pescadito being Pescadito: Yes, that was Carlos Ruiz mysteriously skipping the All-Star Game and being photographed at the opening of a new Guatemalan Hooters restaurant instead. Even better, the headline reads "Carlos Ruiz, Ready for the All-Star Game." We're trying to get some answers beyond the "personal issues" we've heard so far, but the Little Fish's AWOL routine is getting tiresome.
Gotta say, I had a heck of a time spending the second half of the Fire-AC Milan match with the 500-plus rowdies in Section 8. Closest thing I've seen in the U.S. to my glory days traveling with the Boca Juniors hard-core in Argentina. Within a minute of my arrival, I was throwing rolls of red crepe paper onto the field (and just missing the security henchman). Much thanks to my new Section 8 pals T.J. Kehoe, Jeff Singh and Ben Foldy -- and to Marcin Tlustochowicz, the energetic conductor dynamo who organizes all the chants, songs and visual displays from his own reviewing stand facing the fans. First-rate stuff.
My man Jonah Freedman was right about one thing in his column on the recent U.S. tour by Real Madrid, AC Milan and Chelsea: The games should have been more visible on national TV. GolTV and Fox Soccer Channel are great for the diehards, but that audience is pretty microscopic right now. Still, J-Freeds can't blame it all on MLS for not allocating a big-enough marketing budget. The simple fact, which Chelsea CEO Peter Kenyon acknowledged, is that the games were announced far too late to earn prime national-TV space. (If you want to know why the less-sexy MLS All-Star Game is always on ABC, it's because the network knows about it a year in advance.) In the future it'll be up to MLS and the Euro superclubs to get these games organized sooner; then ESPN will have no more excuses to keep it from showing Real Madrid playing a live game in the U.S. against an MLS team.
Had a nice conversation with MLS commish Don Garber, who's bullish about MLS' ability to attract new investors, especially in the wake of D.C. United's league-record $26 million sale last week. As Garber told me, "I had the chairman of one of New York's largest investment banks come to my office two weeks ago and say, 'My family is looking at investing in a sport, and we think MLS is the best investment opportunity in America today.' That didn't happen 12 months ago." Somebody give this guy directions to San Jose.
Ronaldo loves America. We know this because he told us during a 30-minute-long sit-down during Real Madrid's trip to L.A.: "I have a contract with Real Madrid through 2008, and I would like to come play in the U.S. league after that. It's a league that is growing a lot, and for me the quality of life would be spectacular here." But Ronaldo, I said, entire teams here make only $2 million a year -- one-quarter of your salary. "I played many years in my life without earning a thing. I play soccer because it's my passion," he said. "Clearly now I'm a professional, and I make money to do it. But I play when I'm here on vacation and when I'm with my friends -- all without earning anything. I have the desire to live here in the U.S., and it would be ideal to play here for a year or two." His choices? "Los Angeles, New York or Miami." Forgot to ask him if he wanted to start a new team in South Florida as MLS' first player-owner. ...
In case you're keeping score, no fewer than four of Real Madrid's Galácticos -- David Beckham, Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Raúl -- told me they're very interested in playing in MLS at some point. You hear this stuff a lot from superstars, and of course it's non-binding, but there did seem to be more conviction behind it than you normally hear. Figo, for one, seemed really excited, and if I were a MetroStars fan I'd keep an eye on him. The trip that Metros GM Alexi Lalas took to Portugal to play in Figo's charity game might have kicked off a longer-term relationship for the future, if you get my drift. By the way, Figo surprised me by speaking perfect English -- another alluring thing if you're MLS.
In Garber's State of the League address, the most newsworthy element might have been the commish's commitment to "seek MLS participation in the Copa Libertadores," the Western Hemisphere's version of Champions League. The idea has been kicked around for a while now. Check out this line from a Sports Illustrated article dated May 7, 1984: "The [New York] Cosmos' home schedule, in fact, will have as many international meetings on it as NASL league games, and the team hopes to compete in Copa de Libratores..." (Yes, I know, horrible typo. But let's get this done and not just keep talking about it for another 20 years.)
If you want to see some great behind-the-scenes footage of the U.S. national team from the Gold Cup (including the high-pitched yelps head coach Bruce Arena made while watching the Honduras game in the locker room), check out the USSF's multimedia page, and click on the link for "Honduras Post-Game." Quality inside stuff.
Last week I called Jim Rome. As an American who likes soccer, I felt as though I'd suddenly gotten Kim Jong-il on the line from Pyongyang. Rome gave me the usual rant about why he hates the sport, but then he let his guard down. "My son plays soccer," he told me. "He's 4. I signed him up for AYSO. Not my favorite thing to do, but he's pretty good at it, and he likes it, and he's gonna play." That's right, folks: Jim Rome soon will make his debut on the soccer sidelines. "I love my boy more than I dislike the sport," he says. "So I'll be there handing out the Capri Sun and the orange slices and doing what soccer parents do." One can only hope young Rome becomes the first American international superstar. I'd buy that jersey.
Had an enjoyable interview with AC Milan's Paolo Maldini in Chicago last week. Not only does the ageless wonder speak great English, but he also recently bought a condo for his family in South Beach. (Though I have a hard time imagining him hanging with Shaq, Maldini says they met at a hotel and that "he's a really funny guy." He also spoke Italian with Kobe Bryant when they met at Nike HQ not long ago. I advised him not to invite both Shaq and Kobe to his next party.) Maldini, who has no plans to join MLS, can afford to be candid about why so many European stars want to finish their careers in the U.S. league: "They want to have the experience of living here, and there's no stress. I spoke with [former Milan teammate] Donadoni about playing for the MetroStars, and he said it was good: He got to play golf all day."
The VIP event following the Galaxy-Madrid game -- held in a white tent in the tennis stadium next to the HDC -- had some pretty serious buzz going. Over in one corner, you had Ronaldo meeting a giddy Maria Sharapova, while in another you had Zinedine Zidane entertaining countryman Tony Parker (who'd come with Desperate Housewives diva Eva Longoria). And floating around was AEG prez Tim Leiweke, who told me he'd sat next to Phil Anschutz at the sold-out match. "Phil said he was happier than he's ever been about his soccer investment," Leiweke said. Saint Phil was, as you might expect, unavailable for comment.