`Give it five years and the roots will be down'

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It happened maybe 18 years ago but for Ricardo Parra, present that day to watch the Washington Diplomats in RFK Stadium, it is like a film clip in his mind. "Over there, out in the far right corner, Johan Cruyff was boxed in by three defenders. Then he dropped his shoulder, feinted one way, unbalanced them and flicked the ball over them and broke free. Fantastic, I'll never forget it."

Fast forward to a cool, cloudy Saturday afternoon in the late March of 1996. The Colombian-born Parra, 25 years a resident of the United States, is back in RFK, only this time with his wife and two sons. The Diplomats are long gone, vanished in the collapse more than a decade ago of the North American Soccer League, the last time that what the rest of the world calls football vainly attempted to conquer the sport's last frontier. But, once again, a heady pioneering feel is in the air. This is "Meet The Players Day" for Washington's new team, DC United, local member of the NASL's re-incarnation, Major League Soccer, and maybe 800 fans have turned up to do precisely that.

There was alas no modern Cruyff among the 15 players signing photos, team logos and footballs, chatting to a thick queue of supporters crawling past the tables where they sat. But some pretty decent footballers were on show - like John Harkes, midfielder for the US national team and the first American to play in the FA Cup final, the Bolivian striker Marco Etcheverry, who was voted second best South American player in 1993 behind Carlos Valderrama of Colombia, and Etcheverry's compatriot and fellow international, Juan Berthy Suarez.

The occasion was weird, a tiny corner of razzmatazz in a cavernous, otherwise completely empty stadium that can hold 56,000. More than half the devotees were Hispanic, and when the players were presented, running out one-by- one from the dug-outs like baseball players at the All-Star game, the introductions were made in both English and Spanish. The biggest cheer went to Etcheverry, an idol for the 80,000 Bolivians who live in the metropolitan Washington area and who was met in person at the airport by the Bolivian ambassador when he flew in on 26 February. But more than hero worship was responsible for the celebrations. This time there was hope - almost tangible hope - that what in these parts is called soccer is at last poised to take off, for good. To understand why, look no further than the Parra family.

Back in the late 1970, he was a foreign immigrant, for whom the great Dutchman was a reminder of a sporting passion perforce unrequited. Now he is back with an American wife, Jane, a keen fan, and - more important - 15 and 11-year old sons who not only have inherited their father's love of the game, but who play it at school and local leagues, week in week out.

The Parras are big-time investors in DC United; no less than eight season tickets for the 16 home games on the schedule, all $18 (pounds 12) "premium" seats above the half-way line. "We'll get the family down from New Jersey," Ricardo explains. Jane, too, was sure the investment will pay off. "Lots of kids are playing the game, in the city and in the suburbs too, starting from kindergarten. Gradually soccer will become part of their lives, part of the culture."

The optimism is shared by Bill Bradley, DC United's deputy manager, who also coaches the US Under-23 team for the Atlanta Olympics. "There's a huge difference now," he explains. "The NASL had no domestic base, of children and others who had grown up with the game. Obviously we can't expect to start at the level of the [English] Premier League. But this time MSL has made all the right moves. Give it five years and the roots will be down."

Preparations have gathered speed for the opening day this Saturday when DC United take on San Jose Clash in California, and for the home kick- off at RFK on 20 April against Los Angeles Galaxy. There are special ticket packages, posters around town showing the team's logo of a black eagle on a red background with the words "DC United, The Tradition Begins" - even a special fan club, the Screaming Eagles 113th Brigade.

Confined to section 113, this will a very pale North American equivalent of the North Bank or the Kop. "A constant source of songs, cheers and encouragement," says the Screaming Eagles' first newsletter with a naivete endearing to hooligan-ravished European ears, promising such all-American delights to members as pre-match tailgate parties.

But even DC United, arguably the strongest of the 10 MSL teams and with a natural fan catchment of Hispanics and other football-reared foreigners working in the US capital, is hardly a marketing man's dream. Despite the heroics of the Parras, only 4,000 season tickets have been sold, and average crowds are expected to be only between 10,000 and 15,000 a game, leaving forbidding expanses of empty seats. "We tried to find 30,000 to 35,000 seater stadiums," Beau Wright, the team's PR chief, explains, "but the only ones around are college arenas in middle-sized towns that aren't large enough TV markets."

Television, of course, is crucial. Buoyed by the commercial success of the 1994 World Cup here, the ESPN cable channel is showing 38 live games during the season, including DC's opener. But, as the NASL found, TV is a fickle god. True, shoot-outs will see there are no draws, presumed anathema to US sports fans. Each team, however, is limited to $1.13m (pounds 750,000) in total salaries, hardly enough to lure the very best. Even Etcheverry's reported wage of $200,000 (pounds 130,000) is small beer by the top European standards.

Nothing, though, could spoil the fun last Saturday at RFK. "I'm dying to come back," says Harkes, who flew back from London last week after six years with Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County and West Ham. "I'm not fully fit right now, but I'll be ready for 6 April - I can't wait."