Now the Hard Part Can Major League Soccer capitalize on the U.S.'s Cup run by cultivating the new fans, marketing the new heroes and making soccer viable?

June 30, 2002

Sore, jet-lagged and running on the fumes of worldwide acclaim,
Landon Donovan sprinted onto the Spartan Stadium turf last
Saturday night for the final minutes of the San Jose Earthquakes'
4-0 home win over the Colorado Rapids. Only 38 hours earlier
Donovan, the U.S.'s breathtaking 20-year-old striker, had
tearfully trudged off another field, in Ulsan, South Korea, after
Germany had ended the Americans' stirring World Cup run with a
1-0 quarterfinal defeat. But who needs R and R when you're trying
to grow Major League Soccer? "It's important for all of us to get
back here on our teams," said Donovan, who traveled on to New
York City on Sunday to make the talk-show circuit. "Everything's
just crazy right now."

Keeping it that way will be the hard part for U.S. soccer. As
difficult as reaching the World Cup's elite eight may have been,
turning the sport into a viable domestic enterprise is a far more
daunting challenge. Now that the Yanks have proved they can
compete at the highest level, what comes next? Will soccer be
like track and field, another niche sport in which Americans
excel but the masses watch only once every four years? Or will
MLS someday be the country's fifth major league, with popularity
comparable to the NHL's?

Whatever happens, nobody in MLS expects the U.S.'s World Cup
success to turn the seven-year-old league into a rival of the
NFL, the NBA and Major League Baseball. "There's no lightning in
a bottle," says MLS commissioner Don Garber, a former NFL
marketing honcho. "One of our biggest challenges is persuading
the media of what we want to become. In their minds we're
aspiring to be the NFL, but we're not. We're aspiring to pack
20,000- to 25,000-seat soccer stadiums on Saturdays. We're
aspiring to have stronger television ratings, to continue
developing top-level players and to have great relationships with
our local communities. We're not going to start filling up Giants
Stadium. This is about slowly growing the sport."

If anyone doubted that Americans could play this game, snapshots
from the Germany match provided indisputable evidence to the
contrary. There was Donovan, fearlessly nutmegging midfielder
Dietmar Hamann on the dead run and firing a screamer off the
fingertips of Oliver Kahn. There was right back Tony Sanneh,
launching himself on an 80-yard jailbreak one minute, heading the
ball just wide of the goal the next. There was midfielder Claudio
Reyna, suddenly the bold instigator, trash-talking the Germans
and starting every attack. Michael Ballack's first-half header
off a free kick from the right may have given the mistake-free
Mannschaft the victory, but it was the fluid Americans who won
over impartial soccer fans, creating more scoring chances and
responding with grace after referee Hugh Dallas failed to call a
penalty following a clear German handball on the goal line. "I'm
not [afraid] to say that we were the better team," Reyna said
afterward, and he was right.

U.S. soccer has made big splashes before--at the 1994 World Cup
and the '99 Women's World Cup--but this time a pro league is
already in place to capitalize on the buzz. MLS players filled 11
of the 23 spots on the U.S. World Cup roster and struck five of
the six goals scored by Americans. League attendance, after
stagnating for five years, had risen slightly to an average of
15,294 at week's end, a figure comparable to arena sports such as
hockey and basketball. A 22,555-seat soccer-only facility houses
the Columbus Crew, and ground has been broken on a $100 million
complex in Carson, Calif., which will include a 27,000-seat
stadium for the Los Angeles Galaxy and a national training
center.

Still, despite soccer's massive youth-participation numbers and
surprisingly good World Cup ratings--the U.S.-Germany match on
ESPN was watched in 3.8 million households, the biggest soccer
audience in the network's history, though it kicked off before
breakfast--there's no guarantee that more viewers will now tune in
to MLS games, whose ratings have been microscopic. Will enough
Americans watch to deliver the league a sizable TV contract, one
that would eat into losses in excess of $250 million over the
past six years? Not for nothing did MLS shutter the Miami Fusion
and the Tampa Bay Mutiny in January, reducing itself to 10 teams.

Yet MLS must continue to serve as the national team's primary
feeder system if Americans are to keep improving in the World
Cup. With commitments from its television and sponsorship
partners through 2006, the league has at least four years to
approach profitability. Here are some ways it might use the
U.S.'s World Cup performance as a springboard:

--Hold onto as many young stars as possible and market the hell
out of them. Besides Donovan, many of the Yanks' most
entertaining attackers ply their trade domestically: midfielder
DaMarcus Beasley, 20, of the Chicago Fire; striker Clint Mathis,
25, of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars; forward Brian McBride,
30, of the Columbus Crew; and striker Josh Wolff, 25, of the
Fire. While the Cup raised their profiles Stateside, it also
piqued the interest of wealthy European clubs, which will
probably want to purchase their contracts from MLS. (The league
negotiates all of its players' deals.)

Despite claiming in the past that they would do little to stand
in the way of players who want to go to Europe, MLS executives
now say they're unlikely to sell their most popular assets for a
quick buck. "Those people assuming that all our players are going
to Europe will be proven resoundingly wrong," says deputy
commissioner Ivan Gazidis, who signed Wolff to a four-year, $1.1
million extension at the start of the Cup. "In 12 months the vast
majority of this group will still be in MLS."

Beasley and Donovan are the most coveted players of the bunch,
but while Beasley has been clear about his desire to go overseas,
Donovan is strikingly ambivalent. "I don't want to go back and
sit on the bench for five years," he says. Bayer Leverkusen, the
German club that signed him at 16, banished him to its reserve
team before loaning him to MLS last year. Donovan, who led San
Jose to last year's MLS Cup, says he'll stay with the club for
the rest of this season--and maybe longer. "My experience was
pretty bad in Germany," he says, "and sometimes I think no matter
where I go, it's going to be the same way. I love my life in San
Jose."

--Take the next step in player development. The idea of bypassing
NCAA soccer to develop elite players came up, oddly enough, at
one of college sports' sacred grounds, Legion Field in
Birmingham, where former U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan
Rothenberg watched Argentina spank the U.S. 3-1 during the 1996
Olympic under-23 tournament. "Their college kids are better than
our college kids," Rothenberg remembers saying, knowing full well
that the Argentines hadn't gone to college at all. (Instead, a
handful were playing in Italy's elite Serie A.)

Thus sprang the idea for Project 2010, the USSF's bold plan to
put the U.S. in contention to win the 2010 World Cup. Since then
the onus for grooming prospects outside college has rested
jointly with MLS (whose Project-40 lets a limited number of elite
players join MLS teams while earning college tuition) and the
USSF, which established a full-time residency camp for the
under-17 national team, which in turn produced Beasley and
Donovan. But in order to widen the talent search, development--in
the form of youth and reserve squads--should become the domain of
MLS teams. "That's how they do it around the world," U.S. coach
Bruce Arena says. "If it doesn't become a reality, the league is
never going to make it."

--Get the stadiums built. "It's our biggest challenge," says
Garber, who hopes five soccer-only venues will go up in the next
five years. Having 25,000-seat facilities would allow MLS teams
to set their own schedules, control their own revenue streams and
create a demand for tickets that doesn't exist in 75,000-seat NFL
hulks. Lamar Hunt, who built the Columbus stadium, the MLS's
first soccer-only facility, says he visited every World Cup venue
to get ideas for constructing a stadium for his Kansas City
Wizards. Saying it couldn't afford it, the city of McKinney,
Texas, dropped its plans to build a publicly funded stadium for
the Dallas Burn earlier this year. Perhaps after this World Cup,
cities like McKinney will take a longer look at MLS.

--Continue investing, but do it wisely. All of the steps above
will require millions of dollars, most of them presumably coming
from Phil Anschutz, the reclusive Denver billionaire who owns six
of MLS's 10 teams. It was Anschutz who brokered the $40 million
deal earlier this year in which MLS bought the U.S.'s
English-language TV rights for the 2002 World Cup, the next
Women's World Cup (beginning September 2003 in China) and the
2006 World Cup (which will be held in Germany and aired in the
U.S. during more viewer-friendly daytime hours). "Our investors
have been willing to sink a lot of money into soccer," says
Gazidis. "If we believe something makes sense, we'll do it." Now,
however, as a result of this World Cup and the possible expenses
involved in keeping top players, "we may have to face some tough
decisions earlier than we anticipated," Garber says.

--Compete internationally as much as possible. Since fans enjoy
World Cup-style rivalries, MLS should use U.S. soccer's newfound
respect to finagle invitations to the Copa Libertadores, the
South American club tournament that is the Western Hemisphere's
version of the European Champions League. (If Mexican teams are
allowed to play, the U.S. certainly deserves entry after
eliminating the Tricolores from the World Cup.)

--Fight harder for media coverage. The biggest newspapers in six
of the 10 MLS markets--Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Kansas
City and San Jose--didn't send a reporter overseas to cover the
World Cup. "Hopefully, respect for the sport will get better
after this," says Arena. "The league's had such a difficult time
getting good exposure. I hope the media recognizes that soccer
has a great future in this country."

Indeed, as the U.S. bus pulled into the team's hotel in Seoul in
the wee hours last Saturday morning and the players sang My Way
on the vehicle's karaoke machine, it was hard not to look forward
to 2006. Though Arena hasn't yet signed a new contract, it's
likely that he'll be back, leading a team composed largely of MLS
players who are younger but more experienced than most of this
year's squad. You never know who might start in Germany. Beasley
and Donovan were 16-year-old high school students during World
Cup '98.

For four years the U.S. players read and heard plenty about their
last-place finish in 1998. Let the record show that in World Cup
2002 these Yanks finished eighth, ahead of defending champ
France, Argentina, Italy and Portugal--four of the pretournament
favorites. They lasted just as long as fellow quarterfinalists
Spain and England, two of Europe's elite teams. And they came
within two games of the World Cup final. "People who say the U.S.
will never win the World Cup don't know what they're talking
about," says Beasley, a smile creasing his callow mug. "It will
happen one day, and I will laugh at Europe when it does."

For more World Cup coverage, including photo galleries, worldwide
media reaction and reports from Grant Wahl, go to
cnnsi.com/worldcup.

COLOR PHOTO: JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP COVER INSET U.S. SOCCER WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE? COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY WRATH OF KAHN Donovan (21) and others had chances, but the German keeper held firm. COLOR PHOTO: TONY GUTIERREZ/AP STAR IN STRIPES Though Reyna sparked a superior attack, the U.S. bid the Cup farewell. COLOR PHOTO: GARY M. PRIOR/GETTY IMAGES BRIAN MCBRIDE, 30 Forward, Columbus Crew Best U.S. attacker in the air, he netted a pair of Cup goals and set up one more. COLOR PHOTO: KIM JAE-HWAN/AFP DAMARCUS BEASLEY, 20 Midfielder, Chicago Fire Flashed speed and skill on the left flank. COLOR PHOTO: AMY SANCETTA/AP JOSH WOLFF, 25 Striker, Chicago Fire Signed four-year, $1.1 million extension with MLS through 2008. COLOR PHOTO: JIMIN LAI/AFP CLINT MATHIS, 25 Forward/Midfielder NY/NJ MetroStars Saw limited Cup minutes but is gifted. COLOR PHOTO: MASAKAZU WATANABE/AFLO SPORT/NEWSPORT LANDON DONOVAN, 20 Forward San Jose Earthquakes The youngest player to score in this year's Cup.

"Those people assuming that all of our players are going to
Europe will be proven resoundingly wrong," says MLS's Gazidis.

Can MLS get a sizable TV contract, one that would eat into
losses in excess of $250 million over the last six years?

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