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Unsolicited Advice: MLS Could Use Dash of Spice

October 14, 1998

The marketing folks at Major League Soccer like to drone on about building "brand recognition," whatever that might be, but they are being undercut by their players and coaches.

With few exceptions, the three-year-old league's 12 coaches and 240 players are a dull lot.

Bland recognition is more the order of the day.

So, in an effort to help MLS rise above the mediocre and uninteresting, we offer a few tips from the outside world. International soccer has more than its share of oddball characters and bizarre incidents. It's time MLS had a few of its own.

Just think of the reaction, for instance, if the New York/New Jersey MetroStars had traded goalkeeper Tony Meola for a load of firewood.

That's what happened in Bucharest last month, where goalkeeper Valentin Bargan moved from one fourth-division Romanian team to another.

"The main reason for my departure was a truckload of firewood given to me by the new club," said Bargan, who lives in a wood-heated house. "The club I quit offered me only a cart full to stay on."

Innovative trading, that's what MLS needs.

Or what if Commissioner Doug Logan had his marketing department run a poll similar to the one conducted in the Italian League.

There, 589 female fans were asked which foreign player in the league they would most like to share "a night of passion" with, as it were.

Such a poll taken here would no doubt raise a few hackles, but who cares? It would certainly get the league some exposure. Does the Miami Fusion's Carlos Valderrama and his mop of hair rate ahead of Washington D.C United's Marco Etcheverry and his thighs? Is the Dallas Burn's Leonel Alvarez a better prospect than the Chicago Fire's Lubos Kubic?

Where does the San Jose Clash's Richard Gough rank as far as sex appeal goes?

For the record, French midfielder Ibrahim Ba of AC Milan won the poll in Italy, finishing ahead of Brazilian striker Ronaldo of Inter Milan and AC Milan's Liberian forward George Weah.

Then there's the lack of honest quotes, or at least quotes that have some bite to them--a regular occurrence at MLS postgame news conferences since the league's inception.

It's as if MLS had not only ordered its coaches to wear suits and ties on the field--which it did for "image" reasons--but also instructed them never to lose their temper or reveal their true feelings.

New England Revolution Coach Walter Zenga, to his credit, rebelled against the dress code when making his debut this season. "The fans are here to see me coach the team, not be a fashion model," he said.

Now that's more like it.

Of course, things can sometimes get out of hand. Look, for instance, at what occurred in Brazil last week.

There, Palmeiras Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari threw his support behind Brazilian national team defender Junior Baiano after Baiano celebrated a game-winning goal by making obscene gestures at Portuguesa fans.

"They made offensive remarks about his private life," Scolari told the sports daily Gazeta Esportiva. "Nobody is interested in this idea about turning the other cheek. Each person reacts in their own way. If someone talks about my private life, for example, I'll give them a good punching. I'm not interested in suing. I like to sort things out my way."

Now there are some postgame quotes.

Imagine Ron Newman saying something like that after a Kansas City Wizard game. No, on second thought, that's a bad example. Newman, thank goodness, is a veritable font of colorful quotes. He might say something like that. But most MLS coaches would not.

Of course, Scolari had to have a police escort to get out of Portuguesa's stadium in safety. But that in itself provides another marketing tip for MLS.

The league is well known for the mediocrity of its referees and especially its assistant referees, most of whom have no clue how to interpret the offside rule. Bad calls are a feature of almost every game. So why not have a helicopter stand by at Soldier Field or the Rose Bowl or any of the other MLS stadiums from time to time?

That way, after a particularly dreadful refereeing display, the official can be plucked off the field and airlifted out from the wrath of fans.

Sound farfetched? Not really.

In Rimini, Italy, this year, referee Antonio Manari had to flee from enraged fans in just that fashion after red-carding three home-team players. Prevented from leaving on foot by a hail of insults and stones, he eventually left by police helicopter.

Nor is MLS taking full advantage of the team jerseys it sells at league games (don't try to find them in your local mall, though; that would be asking too much).

Perhaps if the league distributed a few jerseys--the Tampa Bay Mutiny's, for instance--to some of Florida's criminal element, MLS would eventually benefit. It could happen.

It happened in Guayaquil, Ecuador, in fact, where 15 men, all wearing Barcelona jerseys, robbed the club of its gate receipts after a game against Colo Colo of Chile.

Robbers disguised as fans. It's a novel idea. It certainly makes the sports page.

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