When Kaczmarek jetted home to the U.S. a few weeks ago, leaving behind a vapor trail of ill will, he carried with him the contracts of some 60 European players—but players regarded by Europeans as second-rate. Still, second-rate may not be too bad—for a starter. To expect more of an American team at this stage is to expect too much. The chances are that second-rate soccer will be a sight better than what has been available in this country up to now, and with good coaching and player development over the years the situation should improve.
The fact that soccer is reported so inconspicuously on the sports pages, when at all, has led to an assumption that it is played by practically no one in the U.S. Actually, there are 2,000 high-and prep-school soccer teams, and in the past decade the number of college teams has doubled to about 500. There are some 4,500 active players in the San Francisco area. There are 223 organized teams in and around Chicago. Los Angeles has 164. And so on. None of these teams attract big crowds, but neither do college baseball teams.
It has been feared that Americans, accustomed to high-scoring games like football and basketball, will not care greatly for a game that often ends in scoreless ties. But Dan Tana, the Yugoslav who is general manager of the Los Angeles NPSL club, holds that soccer is "perfectly tailored for the American sports fan because it has speed, it has action, it has roughness, it has beauty, it has finesse—it has everything." A soccer player using his head and his feet can do to that ball what a Harlem Globetrotter does with a basketball, Tana says. "And, conditionwise, a football or baseball player could not last 10 minutes on a soccer field."
As for the low-scoring aspect of the game, Tana responds by recounting how many times thousands of baseball fans have crowded into a park to thrill to the sight of a Sandy Koufax holding the opposing team hitless.
There have been protests, too, that soccer will chew up a field and make it unplayable for baseball. That remains to be seen. The soccer cleat, shaped like a truncated cone and only three-quarters of an inch deep, would appear to be much less destructive to turf than the cleat used in football, and the action in soccer is not nearly so concentrated.
In a study of soccer undertaken for the U.S. Olympic Committee after the 1964 Olympics, Arthur D. Little, Inc., the Cambridge, Mass. research organization, reported that some resistance to soccer expansion "at the secondary and elementary school levels has come from school authorities and others concerned about potential competition with existing major football programs." But, the report pointed out, "soccer does not draw on the same participant group as football; soccer opens up the opportunity for others to participate in the athletic program who would otherwise be eliminated because of small size or weight."
Soccer does not require that a player be seven feet tall or weigh 230 pounds. It does call for the agility that is expected of every well-endowed athlete and for a stamina that, these days, is demanded mostly of boxers, swimmers, amateur wrestlers and track men. Soccer is played in two 45-minute halves of almost uninterrupted action. It demands an expertise in the manipulation of a round ball that can be appreciated fully only by those who know the difference between an in-side-of-the-thigh trap and a volley kick. Not many Americans do. On the other hand, not many Americans are so knowledgeable about baseball or football as they pretend to be in saloons after the game. Few of us who enjoy these sports have the knowledge to warrant disputing a call by a Casey Stengel or a Bear Bryant. We do it, though, and have fun in the doing.
What may hurt professional soccer most in the U.S. is the season in which it will be played. In most of the rest of the world it is considered a winter game. It is difficult to see how its inherent speed can be maintained for 90 minutes in, say, the 90� humid heat of midsummer St. Louis, New York or Chicago. The teams that the United league is importing will have just finished an arduous full season of play abroad. Will they be able to endure such a demanding game through the hot summer?
The condition of the grounds will be an important factor, too. Played in the rainy season elsewhere, soccer is then at its best, because on moist turf a moderate bounce of the ball brings out the game's finest action. Good soccer grounds should not be bone-dry, as baseball fields often are in the heat of July and August.
Even so, American soccer now has its greatest opportunity. If those who control this burgeoning game in the U.S. have the good sense and the enlightened self-interest to discipline themselves and to take a decent posture toward soccer, we may yet have a shot at international recognition in a game that, thanks to an accident in sporting history, passed us by.