SI Vault
 
A Real Kick
Steve Rushin
September 16, 1996
Major League Soccer—yes, soccer—has put fans in the stands and U.S. stars on the field
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 16, 1996

A Real Kick

Major League Soccer—yes, soccer—has put fans in the stands and U.S. stars on the field

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

Lord knows, a subculture has long been thriving: The MLS Web site, for instance, takes more daily hits (25,000) than Cheech and Chong combined. And the league is gradually taking up not only cyberspace but also shelf space. Campos, Lalas and Ramos are on Kellogg's cereal boxes. MLS action figures are in the works. Both products would likely be advertised on a Saturday-morning cartoon show that has been kicked around: Carlos Valderrama Against the Forces of Evil. When Lalas appeared on Letterman—he has also done Leno, and Conan has called—his fellow greenroom resident Bill Murray casually told him, "Nice shoot-out win in Columbus [Ohio] the other night."

Of course, there have been problems. The field in Columbus, like the field in San Jose, is narrower than Strom Thurmond's mind. The MetroStars are playing the second half of their season on artificial turf after the temporary greensward that they used in the first half had to be ripped out to accommodate Giants Stadium's NFL tenants. And the Adidas-designed iron-eagle logo for D.C. United looks, in the words of the English soccer monthly When Saturday Comes, "as if it has just flown in from the Third Reich."

What's more, the reason one has to consult English magazines is that American publications (and you know who you are) have largely ignored the league's daily dramas and individual plot lines. Sure, the day Lalas was benched and demanded a trade, his photo devoured three quarters of the front page of The Boston Globe sports section. Yes, in Tampa, Valderrama is "huge, I mean huge," says teammate Roy Lassiter. But the rest of the country is not exactly a Valder-Rama, not quite a Lalas-Palooza.

Pity. "Watching soccer is like watching a soap opera," says Wiz coach Ron Newman. "It's deadly dull if you see just one episode. If you don't know the whole damn story, you don't know nothin'."

Chances are, then, you don't know nothin'. The sport is still patronized by eye-rolling anchormen, condescended to by lazy columnists who acknowledge the game only long enough to make jokes about how Wiz and Burn matchups require a urologist's attention. Even the league's primary English-language television carrier, ESPN2—on which MLS pulls numbers comparable to the network's NHL telecasts—has been known to preempt the start of live contests with the conclusion of what Newman describes as "roller hockey games and Arena football matches."

"Professional soccer [in America] is still a fragile proposition," concedes Logan, who was born in New Jersey but raised in his mother's homeland, Cuba. "We've seen an awful lot of xenophobic reaction to the league. Soccer is somehow not American.' With some people, the reaction is almost political—and tied, I think, to the anti-immigration sentiment we're seeing around the country."

While soccer refs can give players yellow cards (of caution) and red cards (of ejection), green cards are harder to come by. Perhaps it is a good thing. "Every player on the team was asking to come back with me," says Moore of his return in July to the Revolution from his club in Germany. "Everyone wants to live in America."

Nevertheless, the league allows teams to have no more than four foreign players on the field at a time. (The number probably will be raised to five next season.) By contrast, the defunct North American Soccer League permitted teams to play as many as nine foreigners at once. "So many things are different now," says deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati, a former World Bank economist and soccer nutjob who scouted every foreigner playing in MLS. "The biggest differences: American players are far better than they were 10 or 15 years ago, and instead of going to England and Holland for our international players, we have gone to Latin America and Africa." In this way, MLS has largely avoided high-priced Continentals and plodding Brits, and also appealed to Latin American fans in the U.S.

"They can now follow what is one of the passions of their lives," says Logan. And Latins are doing so in droves, BOLETOS PARA HOY (tickets for today) say signs all over the Rose Bowl. The league's most-watched (and most-polished) broadcasts are on the Spanish-language Univision network. It was no accident that the Uruguayan-born and New Jersey-raised Ramos was the first player signed to an MLS contract. "Yes, American players can make more money elsewhere," says Ramos, who has played in Spain and Mexico, "but this league is too important for us not to be here."

Wynalda agrees, and he finds himself explaining offensive formations to people in bars—not merely to sell the league but also because he genuinely likes doing so. "I truly believe soccer players are a unique breed," he says. "We enjoy talking about our sport with fans."

Continue Story
1 2 3