America's second wave have the scent of success

Major League Soccer has quickly established itself. Phil Shaw reports

While the cradle of football braces itself for Euro 96, the self- styled cradle of America that is New England stages its own mini-festival of "soccer" this weekend. The two matches, kicking off within 20 hours and 100 miles of each other, are likely to emphasise a peculiar dichotomy within a sport making its latest play for hearts and dollars in a land where gridiron is next to godliness.

Tonight, beneath the steep, imposing stands of Foxboro, Boston's out- of-town stadium, 25,000 spectators are expected to watch New England Revolution play Colorado Rapids in Major League Soccer. The home team are coached by Ireland's Frank Stapleton (rechristened "Fred" in the club's first programme). Bobby Houghton, formerly of Bristol City, takes charge of the Rapids, who include the former England goalkeeper, Chris Woods.

In contrast, when a United States side featuring the Revolution's Alexi Lalas (he of the Catweazle goatee) face Scotland at Willowbrook Stadium, New Britain, tomorrow, the crowd for a game showcasing pounds 50m of talent is likely to be of Scottish First Division proportions. The non-competitive nature of the fixture - revealingly billed on posters as "USA men's national team v Scotland" - only partially explains the disparity.

Americans, for all their flag-waving, have a problem with international sport. Except on rare occasions, like the last World Cup or the legendary Olympic basketball victory over the Soviet Union, such confrontations do not engage the popular imagination. Yet label a contest as being between rival cities or states, and they will pay to watch two flies crawling up a wall.

Happily, and perhaps surprisingly, that argument is holding good for MLS. The first attempt to launch a successor to the North American Soccer League - which involved 24 teams at its peak and boasted Best, Pele, Beckenbauer and Cruyff before its debt-ridden demise in 1985 - the new set-up is exceeding most expectations as it approaches its second month.

Alan Rothenberg, the Midas man behind USA 94 and chairman of MLS, set the 10 teams a target average attendance of 12,000. So far the figure is 28,000, with Los Angeles Galaxy pulling a staggering 69,000 for the debut of Mexico's psychedelically garbed goalkeeper, Jorge Campos. Only the Denver-based Colorado franchise is having teething troubles.

The level of support, for a game often derided as an un-American activity best left to women, children and expats, has been all the more striking for the fact that MLS failed to launch on schedule last summer. Sceptics claimed it had wasted the chance to cash in on the interest created by the World Cup. Rothenberg countered that it was more important to be properly organised.

The major difference between MLS and the NASL lies in an ownership structure designed to avoid the old divisions between haves and have-nots. While individuals operate many of the new clubs, Rothenberg instituted a centralised control structure whereby national sponsorships, television fees and half of each team's ticket revenues flow into the coffers at MSL's Los Angeles headquarters.

Investors pay into a collective pot which was already stuffed with a $50m (pounds 33m) windfall from the World Cup. All backers are warned to be prepared to absorb losses in order to provide a financial cushion for a few years, a policy which flies in the face of free-market principles that are as American as pecan pie.

It is not that Rothenberg has undergone a conversion to communism; simply that he was determined to avoid the inequities that caused the NASL to implode. In those days, well-heeled clubs like the New York Cosmos monopolised the big names. So he introduced a system under which players sign contracts with the league, who then allocate them to the clubs. He also set a salary cap. Top players now take home $175,000 (pounds 115,000), novices $24,000.

If a franchise wants to go above the limit, as happened when Milan's Roberto Donadoni joined Eddie Firmani's New York/New Jersey MetroStars, the finance must come from special sponsorship deals. Otherwise each club is allowed a mere $1.35m from which to pay a playing staff of 18.

Ticket prices have been pegged below those of gridiron, baseball, basketball and ice hockey. Dallas Burn, for example, offer a package of four seats for $29 (pounds 20), aimed at families. The Texan club's efforts to woo the Hispanic population are also typical of MSL marketing strategy.

Club rosters have a less European look than in the 1970s. Most of America's first real indigenous stars, the likes of Lalas, John Harkes and Cobi Jones, are involved, but the main attractions tend to be Latins such as Campos, Carlos Valderrama, Hugo Sanchez and Marco Etcheverry.

Visitors from the United Kingdom will, nevertheless, find a few familiar faces. Mo Johnston, who would have been with the Scotland squad a few years ago, is somewhere over the rainbow with Kansas City Wiz, while USA Today carried a story this week that will be familiar to followers of Blackburn, Coventry and others.

It seems the injury-ravaged Roy Wegerle is making another comeback from a career-threatening knee injury for Colorado tonight. Even in this exciting new era for US soccer, as they will insist on calling it, some things do not change.

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