If it seems Billy Hicks could sell lip balm to the lipless, it's because he once sold American football to the English, which is something like selling soccer to Texans—which is precisely what Hicks does now as general manager of the Dallas Burn of Major League Soccer.
The former general manager of the London Monarchs in the World League of American Football, Hicks had few expectations when he came to the fledgling MLS last September. "All we knew was, we were throwing a party," he says. "We didn't know who was coming. We didn't know if anyone was coming." And then the doorbell rang.
The league straightened its tie, patted its hair, took a deep breath and swept open the door. There they were: some 69,000 fans at the Rose Bowl for the Los Angeles Galaxy opener in April; more than 92,000 for another Galaxy game; 35,000 at the Cotton Bowl on Cinco de Mayo; and in excess of 78,000 for the MLS All-Star Game on July 14, at Giants Stadium, where only the pope has drawn more pilgrims.
The 10-team league was, at week's end, averaging 17,499 fans per game, including 30,724 in L.A. "We've certainly exceeded expectations," says MLS commissioner Doug Logan. "We're 80 percent above our projections on attendance. Our TV partners are very happy, our sponsors are very happy, and we're all very pleased with the level of play. But remember: No one gets a degree at the end of their freshman year."
But freshmen do get a report card, and as it enters the final week of its first regular season, the league is getting high marks. "Take an average player in Germany and an average player in MLS, and there's not much difference," says San Jose Clash forward Eric Wynalda, who played two seasons in the top German league, the Bundesliga. "Except that in Germany, he's making six figures."
Understand, such talk is quietly revolutionary, all the more so because MLS is made up largely of Americans, with but a few lightning-rod foreign superstars: Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos (he of the neon jerseys and perilous dribbling forays to midfield) of Los Angeles; Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama (the likely league MVP, whose scalp seems to be sprouting rotini pasta) of the Tampa Bay Mutiny; and Italian midfielder Roberto Donadoni (who spent the bulk of his career at AC Milan, soccer's La Scala) of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.
Yet the Californian-born Wynalda may well be the league's savior, having scored the goal that prevented MLS's inaugural game, between San Jose and the Washington D.C. United, from being a disastrous nil-nil draw. The league has since averaged 3.4 goals per game, a statistic that ought to be irrelevant. Those who say soccer is missing points are themselves missing the point. The best soccer is about delayed gratification. "Soccer is like sex," says New England Revolution defender Alexi Lalas. "It's about foreplay and rhythm and the buildup to that big...." To that big gooooaaaaalll, as it were.
Whenever he scores, Kansas City Wiz forward Digital Takawira of Zimbabwe deliriously races to a corner flag, then crawls up the line toward midfield, his teammates crawling in a single-file line behind him, like ducklings. If he happens to score on, say, MetroStars goalkeeper Tony Meola, you might hear the Arrowhead Stadium crowd sing, to the tune of Jesus Christ Superstar, "Me-o-la/MetroStar/Looks like a woman and he wears a bra...."
When Wynalda, the alltime leading scorer for the U.S. national team, last visited Foxboro Stadium to play the New England Revolution, he recalls, "Fans were singing songs about how I'm a wanker. That's part of it all. It was good to hear them boo me."
All of which is to say that MLS fans have met international soccer crowd requirements for creative abuse of players, and that MLS players are suitably flamboyant in their celebrations, hairstyles and names—Doctor Khumalo, Joe-Max Moore, Digital Takawira! It all rings authentic. It gives MLS international soccer street credibility. "For the first time," says MetroStars midfielder Tab Ramos, "soccer has a chance to become a part of our culture."