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SOCCER GRAHAME L. JONES

Tour Answers Fans' Prayers but Raises Questions

August 10, 2003|SOCCER / GRAHAME L. JONES

The most popular soccer team in the United States has gone home, dragging its tales behind it.

And one of the stories that Manchester United has taken back to its Old Trafford stadium is a riddle: Where did those 271,488 fans come from?

It's a question that begets other questions.

How is it possible that in a country where Major League Soccer averaged only 15,821 fans a game last season, and where the U.S. national team recently drew only 35,211 for a Gold Cup semifinal against Brazil and a pitiful 5,093 for its third-place game against local rival Costa Rica, for United to average 67,872 in four matches?

Is this the future of the game in this country -- a second-tier national league playing so-so soccer in front of a few thousand and an annual summer visit by some of the world's best clubs that attracts hundreds of thousands?

And will FIFA, with its draconian and all too often nonsensical decrees, find a way to ruin this not-altogether-unpleasant picture for American fans?

First to the myth that there are only a few soccer supporters in the U.S. It's one that is easy to dispel. Even if 90% of the population would not cross the road to see a game, the other 10% -- roughly 26 million people -- will run across the road in droves.

There is one proviso, naturally: They will do so only if the soccer offered is the highest quality.

Most of these fans live in the big cities with the big stadiums, the sorts of locations that major European sporting and commercial juggernauts such as Manchester United are targeting in order to increase their worldwide fan base and their marketing reach.

If the rest of the country doesn't care, neither does United.

"There will still be people in Arizona or Kentucky or Kansas that haven't heard of us," Peter Kenyon, United's chief executive, told Reuters before the team flew home to England.

There are three reasons why United was so successful at the gate: The quality of its play, the quality of its opposition and its increasing exposure on U.S. television.

The English Premier League champion is among the thoroughbreds of soccer, playing fluid, attractive, fast-paced, highly skilled soccer that is vastly entertaining. There was not a game during the Champions World Series that Manchester United took its foot off the throttle, even though it was nothing more than a preseason exercise.

Opponents for Manchester United (founded in 1878) were Celtic of Scotland (1888), Club America of Mexico (1906), Juventus of Italy (1897) and Barcelona of Spain (1899), almost every one of them with a century of history and tradition.

There is no way MLS can compete with that and no one expects it to. It is starting too far behind. The gulf between MLS and European soccer is a chasm of frightening proportions. One example will suffice:

Phil Anschutz is an American billionaire who in the last year has splashed out $150 million to build a stadium and sports complex in Carson.

Roman Abramovich is a Russian billionaire who in the last month has splashed out $96 million to buy four players for Chelsea, one of perhaps four teams that can logically be expected to challenge Manchester United for the Premier League title this season.

That, in a nutshell, is the difference. In MLS, it is still about bricks and mortar.

In Europe, it's about players. Only in time will that gulf ever be spanned. The American league is a youngster. It will take decades.

For the moment, MLS is to Europe's top leagues what the Canadian Football League is to the NFL.

Television had a lot to do with the throngs of red-clad fans who went to see United in Seattle, Los Angeles, New Jersey and Philadelphia. Thanks to Fox Sports World and Fox Sports World Espanol, Americans now can see more top-class soccer than they ever dreamed possible.

While the majority of the mainstream U.S. media pay scant attention to the sport, soccer fans have found a niche of their own, so that the English and Spanish and German and French leagues and their players can all be followed closely, as well as those from Brazil and Argentina.

Of course, it means putting up with Max Bretos and his sometimes over-the-top play-by-play.

During Fox's coverage of the Manchester United-Barcelona game, for example, a large divot was torn out of Giants Stadium's temporary grass field.

"If they dig much deeper, they'll find Jimmy Hoffa," was Bretos' quick comment.

But listening to that sort of thing is small price to pay for watching the likes of Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Ryan Giggs.

Next year, even though the European Championship in Portugal will draw most of the attention in the summer, ChampionsWorld again will bring about six clubs to the U.S. Already, teams of the caliber of Arsenal, Liverpool and Real Madrid have expressed interest.

All of which is not sitting well with FIFA, which is seeing clubs grow richer and more powerful by the day while world soccer's governing body is, to its infinite regret, unable to carve out a piece of the pie.

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