Good Season for MLS, but Growth Needed - LOS ANGELES

LOS ANGELES -- As if there was any doubt about which brand of football reigns supreme in the United States, look no further than Sunday&...


LOS ANGELES -- As if there was any doubt about which brand of football reigns supreme in the United States, look no further than Sunday's television ratings.
An estimated 16.5 million people watched the San Francisco 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals in a mid-season National Football League matchup. In contrast, about 1.6 million viewers tuned in to the inaugural MLS Cup -- Major League Soccer's version of the Super Bowl.

But what a game they saw, along with some 32,000 sodden fans at Foxboro Stadium outside Boston.

When Washington DC United came from two goals down to beat the Los Angeles Galaxy 3-2 on a water-logged pitch in overtime, Hollywood could not have written a better plot to showcase the game to the American sports public.

MLS officials could not have hoped for a better spectacle in its first championship match, a contest sure to win over some new supporters as the world's sport struggles to elbow itself into the big leagues in a country where American football, baseball, basketball and hockey monopolise the sports stage.

The World Cup two years ago helped, and MLS officials crow that crowds exceeded their wildest expectations.

The league had promised exciting attacking play and the 10 teams delivered, with a 3.4 goals per game average. In 160 regular season games, only five finished 0-0 with the winner decided by shootout.

The early TV ratings from the championship game however, show soccer still has a long way to go.

``We did the World Cup and obviously, our ratings were up for that,'' said an ABC network spokesman. ``It will take time with soccer, but this was a good first start, especially since it was up against the NFL.''

The average 17,416 attendance through 160 regular-season games was more than double anticipated with some huge crowds in Los Angeles outdrawing even the hometown baseball Dodgers.

More than 92,000 turned out as the Galaxy beat the Tampa Bay Mutiny at the Rose Bowl in the second part of a double-header after the United States played Mexico. And Giants Stadium outside New York saw the biggest crowd for any sporting event there when 78,614 watched the MLS All-Star game.

``We definitely need to do a better marketing job in several of our markets -- Denver, Tampa and perhaps even Kansas City -- to make the audiences grow in those particular locations,'' said MLS Commissioner Douglas Logan.

He pointed out that renegotiation of the current three-year TV contract with the cable sports network ESPN would be crucial to expanding MLS visibility.

``Come our second contract... you are going to see significantly more games over the air as opposed to strictly on cable,'' Logan said in the league magazine Freekick.

Meanwhile, the league is going ahead with plans to expand from the present 10 teams to 16, with two new teams being added every two years from 1998 to 2002. Also, from next season, each team will be allowed five foreign players on its roster, up from the current four.

Last week, the New York-New Jersey Metrostars' Italian World Cup star Roberto Donadoni announced he was abandoning MLS to return to AC Milan, raising questions about the quality of the soccer being played in the United States.

However, sources said it was because Donadoni did not like playing on an artificial surface at Giants Stadium, rather than disillusionment with the fledgling league.

Logan said the league was evolving toward a style of its own, borrowing heavily from the rest of the soccer world.

``I think we will develop a style which will incorporate the athleticism of the American player with the more artistic, soccer-skilled South American style. Fans will see a rather unique style emerge over the next few seasons,'' predicted Logan.

Interestingly, three of the four managers who were either fired or resigned during the season were British style advocates -- Eddie Firmani at the Metrostars, Frank Stapleton at New England and Bobby Houghton at Colorado.

Portugal's Carlos Queiroz, who took over for Firmani, quit the Metrostars at the end of the season to take a lucrative job in Japan's J-League.

U.S. national coach Steve Sampson, who sees his team start the road to France 1998 with a World Cup qualifying match against Guatemala on November 3, is not convinced the level of MLS play has benefited his players.

After the Americans salvaged a 2-2 draw with Mexico in the U.S. Cup competition in June, he said his players were not as sharp as when they were playing in overseas leagues.

William Olson, who covers the MLS for the California-based soccer weekly, Home and Away, is philosophical.

``It's a point well taken that the standard of play in the MLS is not up to snuff when compared to the elite leagues of Europe or South America.

``But let's be realistic, those who were expecting that MLS would reach that standard automatically were either intoxicated by having seen the high quality of the World Cup in this country in 1994 or were simply expecting a kind of Utopia to exist.''

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