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MLS Needs to Raise Stakes

November 24, 2002|GRAHAME L. JONES

Television viewers in Southern California who were clicking the remote control Wednesday night, searching desperately for something -- anything -- in that vast small-screen wasteland, might have been fortunate enough to stumble upon KSCI, the regional Korean-language channel.

Had they done so at the right hour, they would have come across one of the most entertaining international matches played this year, South Korea's enthralling 3-2 defeat against Brazil in Seoul.

The game could easily have been billed as "The World Cup Final That Might Have Been."

The world champions were given all they could handle by the South Koreans, who finished fourth at Korea/Japan '02 and would have met the Brazilians in the final had they not lost to Germany in the semifinals.

The atmosphere in Seoul was unrivaled, the 63,000 "Red Devil" fans being every bit as loud and intense as they were during the World Cup, and the players rose to the occasion.

Earlier that day, the same thing had occurred in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, where an inspired Netherlands team upset Germany, 3-1, in a game equally pulsating and incident-filled.

Playing the full 90 minutes for Brazil in Seoul was the Real Madrid duo of Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos.

Playing for the Netherlands in Gelsenkirchen was the Barcelona quartet of Patrick Kluivert, Frank de Boer, Michael Reiziger and Philip Cocu. Significantly, each played only 45 minutes.

That was because of an even more important game that was to be played Saturday: Barcelona versus Real Madrid at the Nou Camp stadium in the Catalonian city.

By prior arrangement, Dutch Coach Dick Advocaat and Barcelona Coach Louis Van Gaal, his predecessor in charge of the Netherlands team, had agreed that the four Barcelona players on the Dutch team would play only one half.

"Playing 90 minutes [on Wednesday] against Germany and then on Saturday against Real would be too much," Advocaat said in agreeing to the idea.

Real Madrid Coach Vicente del Bosque apparently did not ask Mario Zagallo, Brazil's interim coach, to limit Ronaldo or Roberto Carlos' playing time, despite the players' tiring journey from Madrid to Seoul and back.

And so when Saturday rolled around and the fans streamed into Nou Camp expecting to see the return of Ronaldo to his former club, they were disappointed. Ronaldo had picked up a cold at the game in Seoul or on the way and did not play.

The Barcelona faithful therefore took it out on another former Barcelona player who had made the switch to Real Madrid, Portugal's Luis Figo. He was pelted with bottles when he went to take a corner kick in the second half and the referee promptly took both teams off the field.

Order was restored in the crowd, play resumed and the game ended in a 0-0 tie. A moral victory for European champion Real Madrid.

That's what the rivalries are like among the world's leading clubs. Their rosters are filled with the most exceptional of players, high-priced thoroughbreds who command huge salaries and intense media scrutiny.

The performance of teams such as these, along with Manchester United, Bayern Munich, AC Milan and a score of other leading clubs, is scrutinized worldwide.

Someday, it might even be that way in the United States.

Slowly, painfully slowly, in fact, Major League Soccer is moving to join the rest of the world. It might not happen in our lifetime, but it will happen.

Another small step was taken in that direction last week.

There was another player who was on the field Wednesday in Seoul and a continent away two days later. Hong Myung Bo is his name, and Friday the South Korean defender could have been seen touring the Galaxy's rapidly rising stadium in Carson during the day and watching the Lakers at Staples Center that night.

Hong is a welcome addition to MLS, and to the Galaxy in particular, but it is going to take either an exponentially greater financial commitment or an incredibly long time for the league's clubs to approach the status of, say, Real Madrid or Barcelona.

Both those clubs have a century of tradition behind them, true, but surely the whole point in establishing a professional league in the U.S. was to one day have clubs in the league that are among the world's finest.

If not, why bother?

But MLS will grow in stature by only small increments the way things stand. Perhaps that is as it must be for now, but it can't last forever.

When television makes it possible to sit in one's living room and be entertained by the world's best players, the only way MLS is going to pry viewers out of their armchairs is to feature the world's best players itself.

And that means raising the salary cap way, way above its present limit.

It also means scrapping the league's all-too-close ties with U.S. Soccer, which right now is something of a one-way street.

The league has certainly benefited the national team by producing American players who can compete internationally. That makes the federation look good, but what's in it for MLS?

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