If it seems Billy Hicks could sell lip balm to the lipless, it's
because he once sold American football to the English, which is
something like selling soccer to Texans--which is precisely what
Hicks does now as general manager of the Dallas Burn of Major
The former general manager of the London Monarchs in the World
League of American Football, Hicks had few expectations when he
came to the fledgling MLS last September. "All we knew was, we
were throwing a party," he says. "We didn't know who was coming.
We didn't know if anyone was coming." And then the doorbell rang.
The league straightened its tie, patted its hair, took a deep
breath and swept open the door. There they were: some 69,000
fans at the Rose Bowl for the Los Angeles Galaxy opener in
April; more than 92,000 for another Galaxy game; 35,000 at the
Cotton Bowl on Cinco de Mayo; and in excess of 78,000 for the
MLS All-Star Game on July 14, at Giants Stadium, where only the
pope has drawn more pilgrims.
The 10-team league was, at week's end, averaging 17,499 fans per
game, including 30,724 in L.A. "We've certainly exceeded
expectations," says MLS commissioner Doug Logan. "We're 80
percent above our projections on attendance. Our TV partners are
very happy, our sponsors are very happy, and we're all very
pleased with the level of play. But remember: No one gets a
degree at the end of their freshman year."
September 15, 1996
But freshmen do get a report card, and as it enters the final
week of its first regular season, the league is getting high
marks. "Take an average player in Germany and an average player
in MLS, and there's not much difference," says San Jose Clash
forward Eric Wynalda, who played two seasons in the top German
league, the Bundesliga. "Except that in Germany, he's making six
Understand, such talk is quietly revolutionary, all the more so
because MLS is made up largely of Americans, with but a few
lightning-rod foreign superstars: Mexican goalkeeper Jorge
Campos (he of the neon jerseys and perilous dribbling forays to
midfield) of Los Angeles; Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama
(the likely league MVP, whose scalp seems to be sprouting rotini
pasta) of the Tampa Bay Mutiny; and Italian midfielder Roberto
Donadoni (who spent the bulk of his career at AC Milan, soccer's
La Scala) of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.
Yet the Californian-born Wynalda may well be the league's
savior, having scored the goal that prevented MLS's inaugural
game, between San Jose and the Washington D.C. United, from
being a disastrous nil-nil draw. The league has since averaged
3.4 goals per game, a statistic that ought to be irrelevant.
Those who say soccer is missing points are themselves missing
the point. The best soccer is about delayed gratification.
"Soccer is like sex," says New England Revolution defender Alexi
Lalas. "It's about foreplay and rhythm and the buildup to that
big...." To that big gooooaaaaalll, as it were.
Whenever he scores, Kansas City Wiz forward Digital Takawira of
Zimbabwe deliriously races to a corner flag, then crawls up the
line toward midfield, his teammates crawling in a single-file
line behind him, like ducklings. If he happens to score on, say,
MetroStars goalkeeper Tony Meola, you might hear the Arrowhead
Stadium crowd sing, to the tune of Jesus Christ Superstar,
"Me-o-la/MetroStar/Looks like a woman and he wears a bra...."
When Wynalda, the alltime leading scorer for the U.S. national
team, last visited Foxboro Stadium to play the New England
Revolution, he recalls, "Fans were singing songs about how I'm a
wanker. That's part of it all. It was good to hear them boo me."
All of which is to say that MLS fans have met international
soccer crowd requirements for creative abuse of players, and
that MLS players are suitably flamboyant in their celebrations,
hairstyles and names--Doctor Khumalo, Joe-Max Moore, Digital
Takawira! It all rings authentic. It gives MLS international
soccer street credibility. "For the first time," says MetroStars
midfielder Tab Ramos, "soccer has a chance to become a part of
Lord knows, a subculture has long been thriving: The MLS Web
site, for instance, takes more daily hits (25,000) than Cheech
and Chong combined. And the league is gradually taking up not
only cyberspace but also shelf space. Campos, Lalas and Ramos
are on Kellogg's cereal boxes. MLS action figures are in the
works. Both products would likely be advertised on a
Saturday-morning cartoon show that has been kicked around:
Carlos Valderrama Against the Forces of Evil. When Lalas
appeared on Letterman--he has also done Leno, and Conan has
called--his fellow greenroom resident Bill Murray casually told
him, "Nice shoot-out win in Columbus [Ohio] the other night."
Of course, there have been problems. The field in Columbus, like
the field in San Jose, is narrower than Strom Thurmond's mind.
The MetroStars are playing the second half of their season on
artificial turf after the temporary greensward that they used in
the first half had to be ripped out to accommodate Giants
Stadium's NFL tenants. And the Adidas-designed iron-eagle logo
for D.C. United looks, in the words of the English soccer
monthly When Saturday Comes, "as if it has just flown in from
the Third Reich."
What's more, the reason one has to consult English magazines is
that American publications (and you know who you are) have
largely ignored the league's daily dramas and individual plot
lines. Sure, the day Lalas was benched and demanded a trade, his
photo devoured three quarters of the front page of The Boston
Globe sports section. Yes, in Tampa, Valderrama is "huge, I mean
huge," says teammate Roy Lassiter. But the rest of the country
is not exactly a Valder-Rama, not quite a Lalas-Palooza.
Pity. "Watching soccer is like watching a soap opera," says Wiz
coach Ron Newman. "It's deadly dull if you see just one episode.
If you don't know the whole damn story, you don't know nothin'."
Chances are, then, you don't know nothin'. The sport is still
patronized by eye-rolling anchormen, condescended to by lazy
columnists who acknowledge the game only long enough to make
jokes about how Wiz and Burn matchups require a urologist's
attention. Even the league's primary English-language television
carrier, ESPN2--on which MLS pulls numbers comparable to the
network's NHL telecasts--has been known to preempt the start of
live contests with the conclusion of what Newman describes as
"roller hockey games and Arena football matches."
"Professional soccer [in America] is still a fragile
proposition," concedes Logan, who was born in New Jersey but
raised in his mother's homeland, Cuba. "We've seen an awful lot
of xenophobic reaction to the league. Soccer is somehow not
'American.' With some people, the reaction is almost
political--and tied, I think, to the anti-immigration sentiment
we're seeing around the country."
While soccer refs can give players yellow cards (of caution) and
red cards (of ejection), green cards are harder to come by.
Perhaps it is a good thing. "Every player on the team was asking
to come back with me," says Moore of his return in July to the
Revolution from his club in Germany. "Everyone wants to live in
Nevertheless, the league allows teams to have no more than four
foreign players on the field at a time. (The number probably
will be raised to five next season.) By contrast, the defunct
North American Soccer League permitted teams to play as many as
nine foreigners at once. "So many things are different now,"
says deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati, a former World Bank
economist and soccer nutjob who scouted every foreigner playing
in MLS. "The biggest differences: American players are far
better than they were 10 or 15 years ago, and instead of going
to England and Holland for our international players, we have
gone to Latin America and Africa." In this way, MLS has largely
avoided high-priced Continentals and plodding Brits, and also
appealed to Latin American fans in the U.S.
"They can now follow what is one of the passions of their
lives," says Logan. And Latins are doing so in droves. BOLETOS
PARA HOY (tickets for today) say signs all over the Rose Bowl.
The league's most-watched (and most-polished) broadcasts are on
the Spanish-language Univision network. It was no accident that
the Uruguayan-born and New Jersey-raised Ramos was the first
player signed to an MLS contract. "Yes, American players can
make more money elsewhere," says Ramos, who has played in Spain
and Mexico, "but this league is too important for us not to be
Wynalda agrees, and he finds himself explaining offensive
formations to people in bars--not merely to sell the league but
also because he genuinely likes doing so. "I truly believe
soccer players are a unique breed," he says. "We enjoy talking
about our sport with fans."
For three years Hicks was the Dallas Cowboys' business manager.
"Soccer players are so much more approachable, so much better
grounded," he says. "They're making about the same money that
the fan makes. They're pretty worldly and self-sufficient. If
they're supposed to make a personal appearance somewhere, you
write down the time and place and you can be sure they'll show
up. Give [Cowboys receiver] Michael Irvin the time and place and
he's...." Hicks mimes tossing a sheet of paper to the wind.
To be sure, most MLS players could scarcely afford to employ
self-employed models, given the league's minimum salary of
$24,000. The league maximum is $175,000, though signing bonuses
and endorsement packages raise the stakes for stars. Are players
happy with such pay? "Of course not," says Lalas. "Are we ever?
Obviously we want to make as much money as we can. But...."
Lalas was spending a rare day off by watching a Burn-Galaxy game
at the Rose Bowl, and he was diverted by an increasingly common
sight in the U.S.: a gorgeous green soccer rectangle, unsoiled
by a baseball infield, unscarred by gridiron markings.
"But," Lalas continued, his eyes fixed on the emerald pitch as
if it were a hypnotist's jewel, "we have a chance to do
something important. We can be true pioneers for the sport in
this country. We can be like the old baseball players and say,
'We did this for the love of the game.'"