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Will Chelsea's Example Cross the Pond as Well?

April 03, 2006|GRAHAME L. JONES

The most despised team in England -- OK, Manchester United runs it a close second -- wants to become the most popular team in the United States.

To do so, Chelsea and its Russian billionaire owner, Roman Abramovich, have forged what they call a "strategic alliance" with AEG and its American billionaire founder, Philip Anschutz.

The question now is, "What's in it for the American soccer fan?"

Unless the answer is a marked upgrade in the quality of players appearing in MLS, there's not much upside.

True, Chelsea will pop over the pond every other year or so to appear in tournaments that also feature the likes of the Galaxy or the Chicago Fire, but European clubs, including Chelsea, were doing that long before last week's announcement.

"In the key markets [read New York, Chicago, Los Angeles], it helps us with the significance of the game here," said Shawn Hunter, president of AEG Sports, "and we're helping them in terms of extending their footprint and their brand."

Well and good, but the only useful outcome of this alliance would be if Abramovich -- who since buying Chelsea in 2003 has spent more than $500 million on acquiring some of the world's best players -- were to get Anschutz to do something similar.

Building soccer-specific stadiums is fine and necessary, but what fans want to see is better soccer, and that means better players.

By pursuing every hotshot in sight, no matter the price, Abramovich has been accused of buying the English Premier League title.

Chelsea won it last season and almost certainly will win it again this season. He has thus earned the enmity of rival clubs and fans.

There is no fear of Anschutz or fellow MLS owners Lamar Hunt or Dietrich Mateschitz or Robert Kraft or Jorge Vergara or Antonio Cue or Stan Kroenke doing that in the U.S., but it would be encouraging if, once their stadiums are in place, they give serious attention to the product on the field.

The likes of Michael Ballack and Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho and Wayne Rooney will never land on these shores, but it would be good to see MLS pursuing the players even a tier or two beneath them.

The quality of play in MLS is improving with each year. The addition of even a few better players would accelerate that process.


These are heady days for Claudio Suarez.

On Wednesday, the 37-year-old defender made his world-record 174th international appearance when he helped Mexico defeat another World Cup-bound team, Paraguay, 2-1, in front of 46,000 at Chicago's Soldier Field.

In doing so, Suarez, who played in the 1994 and 1998 World Cups but missed 2002 because of injury, greatly increased his chances of going to the Germany '06 tournament this summer.

On Sunday night, that dream came true when Mexico Coach Ricardo Lavolpe included Suarez on his 23-man roster for the June 9-July 9 World Cup.

Also Sunday, Suarez made his debut for Chivas USA, helping it to a 3-0 shutout over Real Salt Lake. He then had to stick around for several more hours as television and print media waited to talk to him when official word from Mexico City came on the World Cup roster.

Chivas USA Coach Bob Bradley has taken some criticism for signing Suarez simply because of the player's age, but Bradley clearly knows what he is doing.

"I still believe that Claudio's experience, his ability to organize a defense, what he brings on the inside of the team in terms of mentality and team-building. I just think that he's a tremendous asset," Bradley said.

"One area where I think we need to improve is just overall defensive organization.

"We know we want to be a team that's good going forward, we want to be exciting, we want to score goals, but that has to be done in a way where you're not leaving yourselves wide open. I think he has a tremendous understanding of how to organize people around him, how to communicate with people, how to make them better. I think that will go a long way for our team."

It has already.


A slap in the face has been delivered to every match official in the United States, and especially those in MLS, courtesy of none other than FIFA.

In naming the 23 referees who will officiate the 64 matches at the World Cup, FIFA did not select a single American. That's the first time that has happened in almost three decades. One longtime U.S. referee, now retired, called it "an absolute disgrace."

By rights, and based solely on ability, not nationality, Los Angeles-based Kevin Stott should have been on the list. Instead, the CONCACAF region is represented by Benito Archundia of Mexico, Carlos Batres of Guatemala and Peter Prendergast of Jamaica.

More power to those three, but FIFA is only inviting controversy by continually basing its refereeing selections on geographic quotas by global region rather than by simply choosing the best officials, regardless of origin.

This time around FIFA chose 10 from Europe, five from South America, three from CONCACAF, two from Africa, two from Asia and one from Australia.

All very politically correct but not very helpful.

It is impossible to believe that referees who are officiating in, say, Benin or Singapore, can equal those who are calling high-pressure games week in and week out in the English, Italian, German and Spanish leagues, let alone in the European Champions League.

If those leagues opened their doors to the best referees from around the world, just as they gobble up the world's finest players, the entire refereeing dilemma could be solved.

But as it stands, there will be horrendous calls made at Germany '06, just as there were incorrect calls at every previous World Cup. Teams will be knocked out of the competition because of them.

The players and, ultimately, the fans will be the victims of FIFA's shortsightedness.

But Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, FIFA's president, insists that the chosen 23 "are currently the best match officials in the world."

June will show just how wrong he is.

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