Football: Major leap for Major League

John Carlin in Washington reports on soccer's progress in the United States
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Major League Soccer begins its second season today with few fears for its demise, after the successful debut of last year, but little hope that the game will be supplanting baseball as American spectators' favourite summer pastime any time soon.

Progress will be incremental this season, not explosive. If the average attendance at last year's games of 18,000 can be consolidated, if the TV cable channels that stuck with MLS last season can be persuaded to keep the faith, then those who dream of soccer one day catching the national imagination will be pleased.

Of the new foreign arrivals Richard Gough of Rangers, who is joining Kansas City Wizards, stands out as the only player not living entirely on the memory of glories past. Walter Zenga, from Padova, is MLS's other recognisable big-name signing, but he is unlikely to recapture the thrill of keeping goal for Italy in two World Cups at his new home, New England Revolution.

Among those who have remained for a second season are Roberto Donadoni, who seemed to day-dream his way through his games for New York/New Jersey MetroStars last year, and the blond, dreadlocked Carlos Valderrama of Colombia who, at 35, needs the space and time MLS defenders provide to display his crafty skills in the colours of Tampa Bay Mutiny.

The talent, if not the energy, of MLS comes from the foreign imports, the overwhelming majority of whom are Latin Americans. And here is where the American game's biggest problem resides. The majority of fans are of Latin American origin themselves. At most MLS games you could be forgiven for imagining you had been magically transported to Mexico, El Salvador or Guatemala. It is no accident that the biggest attendances by far are in Los Angeles, the American city with the highest Hispanic population.

All of which means that soccer is in danger of becoming ghettoised, of remaining a minority sport watched by a minority sector of the population.

On the other hand, the potential for expansion into the mainstream is enormous, soccer having overtaken baseball, basketball and football as the game the most American schoolchildren play.

The key to whether the leap is made may lie in the fate of the national soccer team, currently in reasonably good shape to secure a place in the 1998 World Cup. If the children who play soccer and their enthusiastic - if soccer-illiterate - parents get a chance to watch "Team USA" in France two years from now, then they will no doubt make heroes of the players, progress they will then be able to follow back home.

Tomorrow the US plays Costa Rica away in a World Cup qualifier. On the outcome may hinge the answer to the question whether soccer in America will one day be watched in numbers by people who speak English at home.