DaMarcus Beasley was 60 seconds late to his first meeting as a
member of the U.S. soccer team last week. It was an honest
mistake, one that would have gone without mention had Beasley,
the Chicago Fire's 17-year-old midfielder, not been the most
celebrated American rookie in the five-year history of MLS. When
Beasley finally found the conference room at the team's
Birmingham hotel, there were no stern lectures or cold shoulders
or sidelong glances at wristwatches from the players. U.S.
assistant coach Dave Sarachan did weigh in, however. "I guess
DaMarcus must have been busy," Sarachan said, then paused,
"watching Saved by the Bell."
The room erupted, Beasley grinned sheepishly, and for a moment at
least, he looked like a kid who was two months shy of his high
school graduation at Bradenton (Fla.) Academy. As soon as Beasley
stepped onto the practice field, though, the best players in the
U.S. saw that his reputation is no joke. Beasley, the
third-youngest MLS signee ever, possesses a sprinter's speed
and--much rarer--an innate soccer sense, the knack for knowing when
to pass, dribble or make a run. At November's Under-17 FIFA World
Championship in New Zealand, Beasley was runner-up for MVP honors
and scored the tournament's most spectacular goal, a 30-yard
volley. In last month's MLS exhibition season he was the
third-leading scorer, with two goals and three assists in two
games. On Sunday the left-footed Beasley tried to become the
third-youngest national team player ever, but he did not see
action in a 1-1 tie against Tunisia.
Several of the world's most storied clubs are interested in
Beasley, among them Arsenal, AS Monaco, Barcelona and (perhaps
most intriguing) PSV Eindhoven, the Dutch outfit that served as
the launchpad for another precocious teen: Ronaldo. "It's
scary--DaMarcus makes me feel old," says U.S. and D.C. United
midfielder Ben Olsen, only 22 himself. "The craziest thing is
that he's fitting in, even though we're always joking that he's
late for his spelling test."
Joking? When reached in his hotel room last week, Beasley was, in
fact, doing his English homework. Though school and Olympic team
commitments will keep him from joining the Fire full time until
May, Beasley is likely to start for Chicago in its MLS opener at
Dallas this Saturday. "DaMarcus can help us this year," Fire
coach Bob Bradley says, "and not just by getting an occasional 10
minutes as a reserve."
Beasley is only one of several important signings in a league
built by Americans, for Americans and, as is increasingly the
case, on Americans. Sure, MLS still boasts a few name foreigners
(Bolivian midfielder Marco Etcheverry of D.C., Ecuadoran forward
Ariel Graziani of the Dallas Burn and German sweeper Lothar
Matthaus of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars) as well as a few
delightful foreign names (Chicago's Junior Agogo). But with most
top internationals priced out of MLS's $1.7 million-per-team
salary budget, the homegrown product is more attractive than
second- and third-tier foreign players. "The average American
player has gotten better every year, to the point now where some
of the best players in the league are Americans," says Burn
midfielder Jason Kreis, who last season became the first
born-and-bred Yank to win MLS's MVP award.
In other words, the giant sucking sound you hear isn't more MLS
jobs going to foreigners, but rather fountain pens running out of
ink as young Americans sign contracts with the league. In the
past year MLS has negotiated long-term deals with national
teamers Kreis, Olsen, midfielder Chris Armas (Chicago) and
forward Brian McBride (Columbus Crew). Other MLS players either
have already left for Europe (New England Revolution forward
Joe-Max Moore, San Jose EarthQuakes midfielder Eddie Lewis) or
hope to in the near future (Fire forward Ante Razov), though all
of them credit the league with their development. While the U.S.
prospect who edged out Beasley for the Golden Ball award at the
U-17 tournament in New Zealand--striker Landon Donovan--passed over
MLS to sign a four-year, $400,000 deal with the German club Bayer
Leverkusen last year, the U.S. league did sign rugged Chris
Albright, 21, who will start up front for United and last week
earned his third national team call-up. D.C. is again the team to
beat, which brings us to a few tricky questions regarding the new
Will MLS teams ever achieve parity? Although the league has used
player allocations and the salary cap in a fruitless attempt to
impose Scandinavian-style socialism on its teams, there are signs
that the plan might finally have some effect this season.
"There's clearly a class system of teams, but the weaker teams
are a little stronger, and the stronger teams are a little
weaker," says U.S. (and former United) coach Bruce Arena. "So
maybe the league's hopes of parity will come true this year."
Another reason: Thanks to realignment--into three four-team
divisions--MLS has switched to weighted schedules. While each team
will have four games against its division rivals, evenly matched
teams (such as D.C. and Los Angeles on the high end, and Tampa
Bay and the Kansas City Wizards on the low end) will play each
other four times, while poorly matched teams (say, K.C. and D.C.)
will meet only twice.
Can Matthaus save the MetroStars? While Matthaus, a five-time
World Cup veteran, hasn't slipped much--at 38, he was named
Germany's player of the year last season--it's unlikely that even
he is up to the Herculean task of lifting last year's most inept
team. His chances will be enhanced if brittle midfielder Tab
Ramos stays healthy and if new Colombian strikers Adolfo (El
Tren) Valencia and Alex Comas can finish. Either way, don't
expect a MetroMiracle: Matthaus will be singing auf Wiedersehen
to his new team when he takes a month off in midseason to play in
Which of the new rule changes will make the biggest difference?
As part of first-year commissioner Don Garber's effort to make
the game adhere to world standards, several rule changes will go
into effect. The referee will keep the time on the field; if
regulation play ends with the game tied, 10 minutes of
sudden-death overtime (and not a shootout) will follow; and teams
that draw will each be awarded a point. In addition, the eight
clubs with the best records, regardless of division, will earn
playoff berths. Which change is most significant depends on whom
you ask. L.A.'s Robin Fraser, the 1999 Defender of the Year,
prefers the allowance of draws. "If you go into a hostile
environment on an opponent's field and battle to get a tie, you
feel you should get something more for your work than zero
points," he says. In any case, expect ties to be plentiful if
Why is MLS's alltime leading goal scorer threatening to go sell
shoes in Costa Rica? It goes like this: In November, United
traded Roy Lassiter to the Miami Fusion. Lassiter, who was
scheduled to earn a base salary of $100,000 this season, the
third of his four-year deal, went to the league and asked for his
contract to be renegotiated, preferably for the league maximum
($260,000). When MLS offered $130,000, take it or leave it,
Lassiter left it, refusing to honor his current deal. Last week
Lassiter, who has a habit of talking about himself in the third
person, threatened to sit out the season and move his family to
Turrialba, Costa Rica, where he owns a store called Lassiter
Sports. "I wish the league would figure out a better contract for
Roy Lassiter," he says. "What's wrong with that? But I can sit
out and live in Costa Rica on 30 grand a year. I've got land and
property and a house." But apparently not much sense. Says
Lassiter, "I don't know much about contracts." Including, it
turns out, the need to honor them.
Will the suit be tailor-made for the league or for the players?
The most important off-the-field matter to be decided this season
will be addressed on Sept. 18, when a federal court begins
hearing the players' legal challenge to MLS's single-entity
system. "Players want the freedom to change clubs when their
contracts are up," says Fraser. "They want clubs to choose their
own players and decide how to spend their own salary cap money.
It's only fair for the players to determine their own market
value." Replies Lamar Hunt, owner-operator of the Crew and
Wizards, "Losing the lawsuit would be harmful to the league.
Soccer has proved it needs careful nurturing, and labor discord
and lawsuits are not positive."
How long will MLS stars continue playing in the U.S.? Lewis
dreamed of playing in Europe as a kid in Cerritos, Calif., and
this week he got his wish when MLS sold him for just under $2
million to Fulham of the English first division. Whether he'll be
part of a growing trend of MLS defections remains to be seen,
though. Moore, for example, has thrived since leaving last fall
for Everton of the English Premier League, scoring six goals in
one recent seven-game stretch. "The English are still skeptical
of MLS and American players," Lewis says, "but with U.S. results
continuing to improve since '98 and Joe-Max banging in goals,
it's getting easier."
As for Beasley, he may already have an inside track. Though he
has signed with MLS for two years with two option years, MLS
could sell his contract at any time to a foreign club--possibly
for a seven-figure payday. "I want to play in the States my first
year as a pro, and I'm looking forward to this season," Beasley
says, "but I'd be interested in going overseas next year."
Beasley knows he's being watched all over the world. As Hans
Gillhaus, a scout for PSV Eindhoven, says, "I've seen tapes of
him from the world youth tournament and MLS spring training, and
what interests me are his ability at such a young age and his
playing on the national team. It all depends on the tapes I'll
see and the financial terms, but that will be decided in the
Nothing against MLS, but if you're allowed to choose between the
Fire and the club that loosed Ronaldo on the world, it's not too
tough a call. Memo to all U.S. soccer fans: Enjoy Beasley here
while you can.
No Dethroning D.C.
The salary cap may lop off a top United player every year
(midfielder Tony Sanneh in 1999, forward Roy Lassiter this
season), but D.C. remains the league's 800-pound gorilla. It gets
whatever it wants--including, this season, a fourth championship.
1. D.C. United
Bolivians Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno are the best MLS has
to offer--and they have been since Year One.
2. Chicago Fire
Savvy playmaking (Peter Nowak and, possibly, Hristo Stoitchkov)
plus potent youth (DaMarcus Beasley, Ante Razov, Josh Wolff)
equal a second MLS Cup appearance.
3. Los Angeles Galaxy
Offensive hub Mauricio Cienfuegos (17 assists in '99) is league's
most underrated player.
4. Dallas Burn
Jason Kreis might not repeat MVP year (18 goals, 15 assists), but
Ariel Graziani (four goals in eight games) will be a scoring
5. Tampa Bay Mutiny
Thanks to ageless field general Carlos Valderrama, Raul Diaz Arce
will lead MLS in goals.
6. Kansas City Wizards
Mo Johnston's new sidekick: Danish import Miklos Molnar, who led
spring training with five goals in three games.
7. Columbus Crew
Mysteriously underachieving Brian McBride (five goals in 25 games
in '99) will not make up for the defection of Stern John.
8. New England Revolution
Revs will put their trust in new playmaker Mauricio Ramos, but
Eduardo Hurtado (seven goals last year) can't finish.
9. New York/New Jersey MetroStars
German legend Lothar Matthaus will try to save this bumbling
franchise but he'll spend too much time pining (and leaving) for
10. San Jose EarthQuakes
Iranian midfielder Khodadad Azizi will begin by spraying splendid
passes...until he realizes that the E-Quakes have nobody on his
wavelength besides Ronald Cerritos.
11. Colorado Rapids
Look for another crippling scoring drought courtesy of Jorge Dely
Valdes, Anders Limpar and Co.
12. Miami Fusion
Too many forwards, not enough defensive midfielders means lots of
5-3 losses and plenty of fun (but few victories) in Fort
effect this season.
club--possibly for seven figures.