SPORT IN AMERICA 2: Soccer secures a new home

On the eve of the inaugural MLS final, John Carlin reports how the nation's children finally have idols of their own

The rest of the world has been wondering with a mixture of hope, scepticism and trepidation whether soccer is ever going to take hold in the United States.

The answer is finally in. It has. Not necessarily because of the surprising success of the six-month-old professional soccer league, the climax of which will come tomorrow when Washington DC United and Los Angeles Galaxy play the final game of the season to decide the winner of the Major League Soccer championship.

Not necessarily either because, with less than three weeks to go to the American election, the question consuming much of Washington is not whether Bill Clinton or Bob Dole will be president, but whether United will bring the MLS trophy home.

The principal, overwhelming reason why soccer is categorically in the US to stay is that it has supplanted American football, baseball and basketball as American schoolchildren's favourite pastime. Just about every child under the age of 12 is playing soccer. Go to any American town on a Saturday morning - from New York to California, from Idaho to South Carolina - and you will see parks full of little kids, boys and girls, chasing after balls like swarms of bees.

The sport has even given rise to a new term in the American political lexicon: "the Soccer Mom". Candidates of all parties talk earnestly these days about the need to secure "the Soccer Mom vote", by which they mean their desire to win the electoral affections of the average middle-class mother, a person whose life is increasingly dominated by the imperative to transport little Billy or little Sarah - or more likely both - to "soccer practice" during the week and soccer matches on weekends.

Two weeks ago the grey, august Wall Street Journal had a story on the front page headlined "Election game plans make 'Soccer Moms' a political force". The catchphrase has been around for six months at most, having originated - according to one version - in a television car commercial. The mere fact that the shrewd readers of American trends in Madison Avenue have identified soccer images as instruments of commercial success offers the most compelling evidence to date that the sport has been absorbed into the American culture.

A stroll one afternoon last week in a park in the leafy suburbs of Washington offered evidence of a more endearing kind. It was a small park, barely the size of a full-sized soccer pitch, but there were three separate little groups of children chasing footballs. Despite the best efforts of the coaches, thirtysomething ladies in shorts who kept up a continual patter of instructions from the sidelines, they could not be persuaded to fan out and create some space for themselves.

"Go, go, go, Damian," one mom cried. "No, no, Rose, the OTHER way. You're shooting against your own team," wailed another.

Cindy Jaffe, a mother of three, was one of the coaches. She was preparing her team, the Grizzlies, for a match this weekend against the Tigers. When the session was over and the kids had run off to meet their waiting moms, she described how soccer had taken over the life of the average American mother.

"You spend your time transporting children back and forth. During the week, depending on how many kids you have, you're taking them to practices. At the weekends you only have time for two things: shopping and soccer. You take them to the games, you stand on the sidelines - moms and dads - and you cheer. If your kid is a good player, and plays in a team that travels, your whole life is taken up with soccer."

One of her duties as a coach, she believes, is to encourage the children to watch MLS. "I tell them to watch the games and I've told everybody to pick out a player and follow him through the season. On Sunday, we'll all be watching.

"It's incredibly exciting that DC United's done so well in this first season. When I watch them, I get really carried away."

MLS crowd averages of over 18,000 have exceeded official expectations by 50 per cent. More to the point, as ultimately success will depend on television income, ESPN and the Spanish-language channel, Univision, have declared themselves delighted with their ratings. In a major vote of commercial confidence, the final will be carried live on ABC, one of the four major national networks.

What the MLS also provides is the possibility of building a bridge for American children that will enable them to carry their devotion for soccer into adulthood. Children have been playing soccer at school for 15 years, although never in as many numbers as now. But once they reached their teens, lacking role models in the grown-up game, they transferred their allegiances to the traditional American sports.

Now, when children play in the park, they can do something they have never been able to do before but children in the rest of the world have been doing for 100 years. Run down the wing with the ball shouting out the name of their favourite player: "Here comes John Harkes" or "Here comes Cobi Jones."

Harkes and Jones, two members of the US team, are on opposing sides tomorrow, playing for United and Galaxy respectively. The real stars on both teams are not Americans, however. Bolivia's Marco Etcheverry is the pedigree player for United, Galaxy's Eduardo Hurtado - a 6ft 3in Ecuadorean striker known as "the Tank" - is a prolific goalscorer who combines the traditional Latin American touch with the intimidating presence of a Joe Jordan.

Younger native-born players - white, black, Hispanic - are coming through and when the children in the suburban parks begin to reach maturity, the rest of the world had better brace itself. Come the 21st century, America could be dominating world soccer till kingdom come.

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