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SOCCER / GRAHAME L. JONES

International Flair Appears to Be Missing

March 14, 2004|GRAHAME L. JONES

An aged Finn sweltering in the heat of Dallas?

An even more elderly Austrian buckling under the Los Angeles summer sun?

Is that what Major League Soccer has in store for its fans in 2004?

The league's ninth season is only three weeks away, but on the strength of the off-season moves so far, there is little to suggest that MLS is going to be bursting with exciting new foreign talent when its 10 teams take the field again April 3.

Of course, Don Garber and Ivan Gazidis play things pretty close to the vest. The commissioner and his sidekick might well unveil some interesting signings, but the MLS net so far has trawled foreign waters seemingly in vain.

Simo Valakari? Andreas Herzog?

The former is a 30-year-old "discovery" by Dallas Coach Colin Clarke, who expects the Finnish national team player to provide organization and leadership in the Burn's midfield.

Valakari might do so, at least until he realizes that the Cotton Bowl in midsummer is Helsinki on Earth and wilts in the heat.

Herzog, meanwhile, is a 35-year-old "discovery" by Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid, who expects the former Austrian national team player to spray passes all over the Home Depot Center, preferably to teammates who can then do something useful with the ball.

Whether Herzog's legs and lungs can survive a long and flight-filled MLS season, however, is something that only time will tell.

In the meantime, the league has lost more stars than it has gained, and its positive developments concern not new players but four new stadiums, three new coaches and two intriguing new front-office figures.

Clint Mathis, Brian McBride, Carlos Bocanegra and Zach Thornton have taken their talents to Europe. Mauricio Cienfuegos and Marco Etcheverry, among others, have retired. The Kansas City Wizards' Preki, the league's most valuable player in 2003, is injured and out for four months. Count all that as a loss for MLS.

New stadiums are under construction in the Dallas suburb of Frisco, Texas, and the Chicago suburb of Bridgeview, Ill. The New York/New Jersey MetroStars are close to an agreement to build a stadium of their own in Harrison, N.J., and the Colorado Rapids are exploring stadium sites in Denver. Count that as a gain for MLS.

Frank Yallop has left to become Canada's national team coach after leading the San Jose Earthquakes to two titles in three seasons. Count that as a loss.

Yallop has been replaced by his understudy, former U.S. international Dominic Kinnear. Count that as a gain.

Ray Hudson has been ousted as coach of D.C. United. Count that as a big loss. Where will the league's best quotes come from now?

Hudson has been replaced by former Polish national team standout and Chicago Fire veteran Peter Nowak. Consider that a welcome but potentially risky experiment. Nowak will be learning on the job.

Hudson, meanwhile, will keep an eye on Los Angeles and Columbus, where, respectively, Schmid and Crew Coach Greg Andrulis were left hanging by a thread at the end of last season. He's ready to step in, if called.

Clarke, a former Northern Ireland international, is the third of the new MLS coaches, but he already has raised eyebrows with his signing of Valakari and his waiving of former Galaxy star Ezra Hendrickson.

If Nowak's taking the D.C. job is an interesting move, then former Galaxy defender Alexi Lalas' elevation to president and general manager of San Jose is a fascinating one.

The Earthquakes will return virtually intact and should contend again for the title, but just how Lalas adapts to his new role as "a suit" will keep everyone watching San Jose with interest, not least of all Club America of Mexico, the team that supposedly is trying to acquire partial or complete control of Los Earthquakes.

There has not been much news on that front in a while, and neither has there been any word out of Guadalajara, where Mexican businessman Jorge Vergara still is plotting the birth of Chivas USA as an MLS expansion team next season. Houston and San Diego remain at the top of Vergara's list, not necessarily in that order, but where he really would like to put Chivas is in Los Angeles. Having two teams here didn't hurt when the Aztecs and Surf were in town, so why is MLS so resistant to the idea?

Los Angeles has an interesting dynamic of its own, now that the Galaxy has added former World Cup winner and European champion Juergen Klinsmann to its front office.

There is no doubt that the personable German has international contacts aplenty that could help the Galaxy, but he is likely to chafe under the restraints that MLS puts on its teams.

Here's one idea that could ease the salary-cap woes and build interest at the same time: Why not let MLS clubs arrange as many friendly internationals as they want -- perhaps in the off-season only -- and allow them to add the profits, if any, to their salary cap?

Those clubs that succeeded would have money to either become more competitive in the international transfer market or to better reward their existing players.

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