Seventy-year-old Carlo Rovic, a native of Yugoslavia and a volunteer goalie coach at the University of San Francisco, was talking about the sport he has played all his life when, as frustrated soccer people often do in America, he got emotional. "Mark [Powell, the USF goalie] work so hard for me," said Rovic, the tears welling in his eyes. "He say, 'Carlo, I try hard, you try hard. But when I finish, where I go?' I say nothing. Because...where?"
Where indeed? Twenty years after the soccer boom was deemed imminent in the United States, the future of the game here is in limbo. It's true that our parks are filled with more and more youth leagues, that American media coverage of this year's World Cup in Mexico was unprecedented and that the game's place in the national consciousness has been validated by soccer balls bouncing in television commercials. Nevertheless, U.S. soccer is now in an era of reevaluation, brought on by the collapse of the North American Soccer League last year. "We all really got ahead of ourselves," says Ricky Davis, the captain of the U.S. national team and formerly a midfielder for the defunct New York Cosmos of the NASL. "I now realize it will take a tremendous amount of time before we soccer people realize our dream of being an established sport in this country."
Davis is currently earning his living playing indoor soccer for the New York Express in the Major Indoor Soccer League, the country's only professional outlet for top players. He and most other former outdoor players see the indoor game as an inferior test of skill but are thankful for something that gives them employment and keeps soccer on the sports page.
Unlike the NASL, the MISL has survived hard times through fiscal restraint and clever marketing. Still, the MISL lost between 15 and 20 million dollars last year, and franchises have struggled in the major markets of New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. But there is some reason for confidence. Last season the average crowd in the 12-team league was more than 9,000, with the league's most successful franchises developing genuine indoor soccer fans.
"I've never been one to delude myself into thinking that all the kids playing soccer are going to be spectators," says new MISL commissioner Bill Kentling. "I don't think there is a correlation."
It has been a hard lesson. There are close to 5.5 million players affiliated directly or indirectly with the United States Soccer Federation, with estimates of the total number of participants involved as high as eight million. American youth teams have been increasingly successful in international competition. The boys' 19-and-under national team recently eliminated Mexico from next year's Junior World Cup, and in August the U.S. women's team finished second to Italy in the Mundialito, the Little World Cup. The level of college soccer is at an alltime high, with major conferences such as the ACC devoting resources to developing national powers.
But once a promising player graduates, he's likely to run into a wall. The foreign-dominated NASL seldom sought out American talent, and when it did, it rarely put native players in positions of importance. Indoor soccer, with its frenetic pace and claustrophobic environment, has done more to hinder than to advance the skills of a promising outdoor player. "All I want when I get a little older is to be able to watch kids play decent soccer," says USF coach Steve Negoesco. "But the pros screwed that up."
The NASL's major sin was trying to make soccer a national sport without developing a foundation for the future. After an over-the-hill Pelè gave the fledgling American game a star, naive owners continued to pay exorbitant amounts to so-called world class foreign players whose name recognition was zero and whose motivation to perform was possibly even less. Meanwhile, American talent remained undeveloped. "Everyone thought Pelè was a messiah," says Cliff McCrath, coach of the Division II champion Seattle Pacific. "It wasn't his fault, but in my opinion, Pelè was our executioner."
The scars run so deep that the idea of launching another national outdoor soccer league anytime soon seems absurd. Outside the NCAA, the most important outdoor league in the U.S. and Canada is the Western Soccer Alliance, a group of seven teams from Edmonton to San Diego that during the spring play each other and touring international teams. Most of the teams are amateur and provide an outlet for college players in the off-season. Some are pro, by strict definition, although players rarely make more than $1,000 a month. Each team can have only two foreign players.
Barring the formation of a national development center for top players that would be funded by corporate contributions and the USSF, most soccer insiders believe that for the next several years, regional leagues such as the Western Soccer Alliance will have to serve as a kind of holding tank for college players who want to stay outdoors. Two exceptions are Dave Vanole and Paul Caligiuri. Last year Vanole, as a member of UCLA's national championship team, was one of the top collegiate goalies in the country. This year he was drafted by an indoor team but chose not to play. Instead, he has become a graduate assistant for the Bruins so he can train with the U.S. national team next year. "It might sound corny," says Vanole, 23, "but I believe in the development of soccer, and I'm willing to sacrifice."
Caligiuri, a senior at UCLA, is a stopper who, along with John Kerr Jr. of Duke, is the co-favorite for the Hermann Award, soccer's version of the Heisman. He is also the only American to be picked and to play, and to impress, at the FIFA all-star game following the '86 World Cup.
While Caligiuri does not rule out joining an indoor soccer team after graduation, he is likely to go to Europe to play outdoors for a second division club, a route taken by last season's Hermann Award winner, Tom Kane of Duke. "Right now, it's the Dark Ages for guys like me," says Caligiuri. "My dream is to play for the national team. But America is not always going to be without an outdoor league."
Others disagree. For one thing, soccer is no longer a huge success even in countries where its tradition runs deepest. In Brazil, which, along with Italy, is a three-time winner of the World Cup, corruption and scandal have caused an appreciable decline in the popularity of soccer. In England, fan hooliganism, an enfeebled economy and political moves that have placed less emphasis on competitive sports in schools are undermining interest in the game. In most other European countries the sport's popularity is also threatened, and teams are taking huge losses. Even in Argentina crowds for first division—major league—games barely average 10,000. So it should come as no great shock that soccer, as a spectator sport, has failed to become a hit with the American public.
Shep Messing, who played for the Cosmos before joining the MISL and who is currently a co-owner and president of the Express, says, "I don't believe outdoor soccer will ever make it [in the U.S.] professionally. I don't believe we will ever succeed at the Olympic or World Cup level. Americans just don't buy the sport." Messing adds enigmatically, "Don't get me wrong. I think outdoor soccer is the greatest game in the world. There's no better sport for kids to play."
Maybe that's the problem. A lot of Americans like soccer, but few have shown the passion for the game that has gripped the rest of the world. Says the impassioned Rovic, "For me soccer is love, love, love. In America, you have the best sport. You have the fun. But you don't have this love."