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7 tonight, at the Coliseum

Energy infusion

Latin America's passion for soccer is clearly a key to the sport's development in the U.S.

July 28, 2007|Grahame L. Jones | Times Staff Writer

The gradual evolution of the United States into what Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber calls "a soccer nation" is being sped along with help from an unlikely source.

Mexico, the great sporting rival to the south, ultimately could have more to do with turning soccer into a major spectator sport in the U.S. than the arrival of any number of David Beckhams.

Consider tonight's Chivas de Guadalajara-Galaxy match.

Beckham, the Galaxy's new star, will not play tonight. He's still nursing an injured ankle that needs further treatment, and his availability is uncertain for the team's next SuperLiga game Tuesday against FC Dallas.

But it's not Beckham who lures tens of thousands of fans to see the Galaxy play one of Mexico's most popular teams at the Coliseum. Instead, it will be Chivas supporters packing the stands for the SuperLiga match. The expected large crowd, following similar throngs in other American cities over the last few years, illustrates the direction soccer is heading.

The more competitive the rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico becomes on the field, the closer the relationship seems to grow between the two countries' soccer federations and soccer leagues. "It's no secret that much of the growth of MLS and soccer in the U.S. relies on our continued connection with the growing Latin American community," Garber said recently.

Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer, put it in somewhat different terms. "I think it's important, rather than building walls, that we're trying to break walls down," he said.

The launch of the SuperLiga, now underway in six U.S. cities, is the most ambitious and substantial tie yet between MLS and the Mexican league. Limited to eight teams, four from each league, in its initial edition, it is expected to grow in coming years, with participation based on performance rather than by invitation. The winning team in 2007 will receive $1 million.

Latino fans have always been the backbone for soccer in the U.S., whether their national origins are Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Honduran, Costa Rican or any other. Now, MLS and U.S. Soccer are setting out to court them. The initiative is being carried out on multiple fronts. Here are only some of the recent developments:

* In 2004, MLS, through its Soccer United Marketing arm (SUM), persuaded the Mexican league to play its qualifying matches for South America's Copa Libertadores in various U.S. cities. Thus, the annual eight-team InterLiga tournament was born and now attracts sizable crowds each January.

* In 2005, SUM took over the marketing and staging of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, the regional championship held every two years for all national teams in North and Central America and the Caribbean. The tournament last month drew close to half a million fans, with five games involving Mexico each attracting crowds of larger than 50,000.

* Gulati, in March 2006, was elected president of U.S. Soccer, becoming the first Spanish-speaker to hold the post. This has greatly eased communication at the highest level between the federation and its southern counterparts. Gulati's wife, Marcela, is from Mexico, and their two children are bilingual.

* In June, the U.S. participated in the Copa America for the first time in 12 years, and although its performance in Venezuela left much to be desired, the willingness to compete against the South Americans is seen as a plus because of the top-flight competition.

This month, MLS announced the creation of a 16-member Latin American Advisory Board, featuring former World Cup stars Teofilo "Nene" Cubillas of Peru, Marcelo Balboa and Fernando Clavijo of the U.S., Claudio Suarez and Monica Gonzalez of Mexico and other South and Central Americans from the coaching and media ranks.

Also this month, U.S. Soccer announced the addition of California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles) to its 15-member board of directors as the second of three independent directors. Nunez, along with longtime Goldman Sachs Group partner Carlos Cordeiro, who joined the board in February, will bring a Latino perspective to the table.

When MLS began play in 1996, the league featured many Latino players, including such soon-to-be-soccer-household names as Hugo Sanchez (now Mexico's coach), Leonel Alvarez, Jorge Campos, Marco Etcheverry, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Raul Diaz Arce, Jaime Moreno and Carlos Valderrama.

It then drifted slightly away from that path, but with this season's acquisition of such players as Argentine playmaker Guillermo Barros Schelotto by the Columbus Crew, Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel by the New York Red Bulls, Mexican forward/midfielder Cuauhtemoc Blanco by the Chicago Fire and Colombian midfielder Juan Toja by FC Dallas, MLS seems to be rediscovering its roots.

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