A game of shoot-outs, statistics and schoolkids

SPORT IN ANOTHER COUNTRY; Rupert Metcalf travels around the United States in search of 'soccer'
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The Independent Online
It is football, but not as we know it. "Soccer", as they call the sport in the United States, is proving surprisingly popular with the spectating public across the Atlantic. What follows is an attempt to describe life as a soccer fan in the last great nation on earth to embrace the global game.

Major League Soccer, which started in April, is the latest attempt to establish a national professional league in the States. A two-week trip this month took in four matches: a double-header featuring the league's first all-star game plus a warm-up for Brazil's Olympic XI against a Fifa all-star team, and two MLS fixtures: New York/New Jersey MetroStars against Dallas Burn and New England Revolution against Washington DC United.

The crowds that flocked to watch the last World Cup and Olympic soccer, both in California in 1984 and at the present Games, prove that the US sporting public loves the big occasion. The all-star games were no exception: 78,416 packed New Jersey's Giants Stadium, a record crowd for a sporting event at a venue that has hosted countless big American football games. Only the Pope, who pulled in 82,498 last year, has drawn a bigger crowd there.

Even more encouraging for the long-term health of the game is the popularity of regular league games. Although the figure has dropped since the start of the Olympics, at the time of the all-star games in mid-July the average MLS crowd was 20,420 - with the biggest crowd an astonishing 92,216 for Los Angeles Galaxy's home game against Tampa Bay Mutiny last month.

The average age of a US soccer crowd appears to be much younger than in the UK, with family groups turning up in force. Soccer, cheap and simple to play, is hugely popular in US schools, and now, at last, the kids have some local idols they can watch in their home towns.

Quite what US soccer crowds would make of inner-city stadia like Anfield and Highbury is hard to imagine. Giants Stadium, like Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts, the home of New England Revolution, is an out-of-town venue, surrounded by motorway intersections and by huge car parks. The fans mostly arrive an hour or two early, and fix up barbecues in the car parks before entering the stadium. The barbecues are often re-lit after the game, as the kids take over the tarmac to stage their own soccer games.

Once inside the stadium, the fans rarely fail to create a vibrant atmosphere. The Mexican wave is by no means out of fashion and, at the MetroStars match, a Latin American-style carnival band, complete with bikini-clad dancers, had their own section of a stand behind a goal.

There were, however, no visible away fans at the two MLS games watched - thanks largely, of course, to the huge distances involved. Alcohol is for sale inside the stadiums, but because most spectators drive to the games, the European habit of groups of lads meeting for a few beers before the game has not caught on.

Just as an American soccer crowd is very different to a British crowd, so is the football. It is hard to assess the quality of play compared with the English leagues because the style is so contrasting. They play in summer (and, not just in Atlanta, that means hot) and the dominant players are often Latin American, so the pace is slower, the passes more measured. Route One is a highway, not a type of football.

Settling drawn games by a shoot-out is not the only rule change adopted by MLS. Stadium clocks count down from 45 minutes and each half stops when they reach zero, and not when the referee blows his whistle - although he does have the power to stop the clocks for injuries. There is no such thing, then, as the painful uncertainty of injury time.

Both fans and media are bombarded by statistics. Goals, assists, saves, clean-sheets, offsides, fouls committed, fouls suffered and much more - everything is noted and listed.

Adrian Paz, a Uruguayan briefly of Ipswich Town but now with Columbus Crew, is near the top of the list in both the "fouls suffered" and "caught offside" categories; but the most impressive statistic belongs to Leonel Alvarez of Dallas Burn. A veteran of two World Cups for Colombia, he heads the "cautions" list with a vengeance: 12 games, 13 yellow cards.

It could be that an obsession with statistics compensates for a lack of real understanding of the game in some quarters, but there can be no doubting the genuine enthusiasm of the thousands who turn up to watch. If only the US media would reflect the interest shown by the sporting public - there were more than 500 journalists from 23 nations at the all- star games, but the New York newspapers and TV stations devoted only a fraction of their sports coverage to the two matches. That is a battle US soccer has yet to win.