The American sports landscape is changing before our very eyes. For the first time ever, there is a labor-related stoppage in play in the NBA due to the owners' lockout of the players. Games are being missed every night, but, for the most part, people don't seem to care. The NBA, just a few years ago the fastest-growing league in terms of world popularity and the most dynamic marketing machine on the U.S. sporting scene, is falling under the weight of its own success, of the top-heavy salary structure and profit-driven owners.
So what is taking its place? Well, hockey continues to grow in popularity among Americans every year, and the NHL figures to capitalize in a big way with each NBA game missed. One only need look at attendence at our own Oberlin Plague's games to see a high level of excitement over hockey in the U.S. And America was so enraptured by the glory of 1998's baseball season that almost nobody paid any attention to the NBA lockout until after the World Series, and free agent signings still bump whatever non-negotiations take place in basketball from the headlines of the sports section.
But something else, something extraordinary is happening. There is major league soccer in America, and people care. Beyond that, there is good major league soccer in America, and the rest of the world is standing up and taking notice. Major League Soccer (MLS) formed in America following the success and excitement over the 1994 World Cup that took place in the U.S., and the relative success of the American team compared to previous years.
The MLS held its inagural season in 1996 with modest if encouraging results. Crowds were sometimes dwarfed by the giant stadiums, usually primary-use football fields, where the games were played. However, the crowds were often comprable with cities' hockey or basketball attendance, and sometimes passed 20 and even 30 thousand.
MLS was not without its critics, however. Many still found the idea that a professional soccer league could be successful commercially or would ever be accepted into the American sports scene fully, citing the eventual failure of the North American Soccer League (NASL). This, despite the fact that the United States remains as nationally homogenous a country as ever, and that soccer (football, or futbol, really) is the world's most popular sport, by far.
The criticism also forgets that several generations have now grown up with youth soccer leagues being every bit as prevalent as Little League baseball or pee-wee football among American children. Was this segment of the American public so blind as to emphasize the political role of "soccer moms" but refuse to acknowlege soccer's widespread potential appeal?
It was this widespread appeal that fueled MLS' success and growth. The founders of the league made sure to place control centrally, at least initially, to avoid the financial problems and overbidding for players that helped sink the NASL and USFL. The league would and does control player salaries; as a consequence, they cannot bid for international superstars, but they would not likely play in a fledgling league, anyway.
But another result is that MLS is affordable, more so than any other major league sport. A family can go to an MLS game, get good seats, and even eat for scarcely more than the price of one NFL ticket. This affordability has helped attract not only families with soccer-playing children, but also large numbers of middle and lower-middle class members of the Mexican and Latin American communites, where futbol is a more traditional part of the culture. The second MLS season began without much fanfare, but with gradually increasing attendance figures throughout the league as the year went on and with the promise of expansion in the next season. D.C. United successfully defended their championship, this time beating the Colorado Rapids 2-1.
As the third season began, the league expanded to 12 teams with the addition of the Miami Fusion and the Chicago Fire. In an effort to promote parity, the league had forced United to deal star Raul Diaz-Arce, who now plays for the New England Revolution.
United proved they were no fools, as had been evident by the previous outstanding management by President and General Manager Kevin Payne and coaching under Head Coach Bruce Arena. Marco Etchevarry, a standout from the beginning, stepped up and won the Honda MVP this year in guiding United to a third straight Eastern Conference championship and MLS Cup appearance. However, there was to be no three-peat, as the Fire became the first expansion team to ever win a championship in their debut season.
United, despite the loss, remains as close to a dynasty as you'll find in American sports today, and is unquestionably the most experienced and probably still the best club in MLS, though the departure of Arena weakens their prospects for next season. But before next season, United gets to play for pride, their own and that of American soccer.
Back on Aug. 16, United had won the CONCACAF Champions Cup over Mexican club champion CD Toluca FC by the count of 1-0, gaining ever more credibility on the world soccer scene. Then last Saturday, November 14, they played the first game of the two-game InterAmerican series against Brazillian champion Vasco de Gama.
Just as MLS was viewed with haughty disdain at its inception, United was looked down upon by Vasco de Gama and the international soccer elite. The prediction from "anyone who knew anything" was that United would lose, big time. Well, yes, United lost-but barely. Relying on a goal in the 69th minute of play from 21-year-old defender Felipe, who has been crowned the next Brazillian superstar, to win 1-0.
So United lost the first game of the series by a tight margin, and Vasco de Gama was full of excuses, whining about injured players (five were missing), travel (they wrapped up their season Thursday in Brazil) and the like. The fact, however, is that a Saturday night exhibition soccer game drew 26,616 exuberant fans, the largest home crowd of the year, and RFK Stadium was rocking.
Copyright © 1998, The Oberlin Review.
Volume 127, Number 10, November 20, 1998
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