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WORLD CUP USA '94 : A Tall Order : Major league soccer, hoping to ride the wave of momentum from World Cup '94 and set to make its debut in 1995, faces the daunting challenge of surviving on the competitive American sports landscape

July 03, 1994|ELLIOT ALMOND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DALLAS — Lee Stern can laugh about it now. He can find humor in a little enterprise he once undertook that had its ups and downs.

"Obviously, I never was interested in money," Stern said. "Being in soccer prevented me from being one of the major owners of the Chicago Bulls."

Stern, a successful Chicago commodities broker, once was a major force in American soccer. He owned the Chicago Sting of the now-defunct North American Soccer League.

He turned down a chance to be involved with the Bulls because by the time the offer was made "the Sting was losing more money than I could think about," he said.

Stern, who also once was an investor in the Chicago White Sox, lost millions trying to sell soccer to America.

So did Texas oilman Lamar Hunt, who once owned the NASL's Dallas Tornado.

If anyone in the United States has reason to be bitter by the mere mention of the word soccer, it is these gentlemen.

Yet, last week there was little doubt who was running a soccer fever in Chicago and Dallas.

They, like so many other Americans, have been swept up in a euphoric wave of excitement over World Cup '94. Hunt had seen 10 matches by the third weekend and was leaving town to see more.

But before anyone declares America a bona fide soccer-crazy nation, there is much to be done. The architects of the World Cup organizing committee face a heady task, the development of a professional soccer league that becomes part of Americana.

That, after all, is the ultimate aim of this monthlong extravaganza.

"It's not like soccer comes into America today as a virgin sport, untouched and untried," said Kyle Rote Jr., one of the biggest names in U.S. soccer 20 years ago.

If the Lee Sterns, Lamar Hunts and a host of other successful sports owners could not make it work, how will it be different this time?

"I think the party will be over in a couple weeks and soccer will be where it was," said David Burns of Burns Sports Celebrity Service, a Chicago-based company that promotes athletes for commercials.

Even Leigh Steinberg, a sports agent from Newport Beach who represents a number of U.S. national team players, is not sure the sport will gain a foothold in America. And if it does not, then the legacy of the World Cup will be nothing more than fond memories.

After the United States upset Colombia in the first round of Group A, the sport's future looked promising. The next day, calls came pouring in, Steinberg said. But when the team lost a few days later to Romania, "It hit with a dull thud."

Such is the fickle nature of the American public. Obscure Olympic athletes such as speedskater Dan Jansen or skier Tommy Moe were darlings during the Winter Olympics last February, but where are they now?

Put simply, Steinberg believes soccer's future rests on the outcome of Monday's Brazil-United States match at Stanford Stadium.

"It won't be different (this time) unless there is a spectacular upset victory against Brazil on July 4," he said.

"We're a trendy country. We tend to focus on things that are hot. All of a sudden soccer is hot."

But a bad show Monday with millions of viewers expected to be watching could cool America's interest.

Still, the soccer community is unswayed. Now that the World Cup has captured the imagination of a nation, those who have toiled in the soccer trenches for much of their lives believe their sport and time has come.

It might take five years to find out if they are right. Major League Soccer, which is scheduled to open in 12 cities in April of 1995, is hoping to lay a foundation to sustain the sport. The World Cup was the jump start, and today, optimism is oozing from the Century City offices it shares with the World Cup '94 organizing committee.

Alan Rothenberg, head of World Cup USA '94, the U.S. Soccer Federation and MLS, is part of the reason many believe the new league has a better chance of succeeding than past efforts.

"Alan came up with this brilliant scheme that might be the only scheme that could work," said Rote Jr., a Memphis sports agent.

But when the World Cup started June 17, the proposed league had so many question marks some were skeptical. For instance, the day before the Cup opener in Chicago, Rothenberg introduced seven cities as charter members of MLS instead of the expected 12. Rothenberg said this week five more cities will be named by Aug. 1, although others say it probably will happen sometime in the fall.

Furthermore, sponsors and financing, the backbone of the single-entity league, which will have an operating plan similar to the franchise system used by McDonald's restaurants, have not been announced.

But as much as the World Cup has piqued interest, it has brought potential investors to the table, MLS insiders say.

Harley Frankel, senior vice president of MLS, worked as an NBA executive for eight years. Before that, he worked in the Carter Administration.

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