Major League Soccer Is Alive and Kicking in US Growing Fan Support, Star Players, and Positive Publicity Have Helped League Garner Steady Support

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It's raining, hard. It's a weeknight, and Major League Soccer's New York/New Jersey MetroStars are ready to play the last-place Colorado Rapids - a mediocre match-up on an awful night.

To add to this, ESPN2 is also broadcasting the game live, so fans can watch the game at home without getting wet or having to deal with New York traffic.

So as Soccer Magazine's Dan Herbst takes his seat in the press box, he agrees with his fellow reporters: The game will be lucky to draw 5,000 fans. More than 14,000 came. Four months later, Mr. Herbst puts the May 17 game in perspective. "It was the most remarkable crowd of the year," he says. "You sit there and you say maybe the time is right for this sport." Compared with the 50,000 fans that many football games routinely draw - even in bad weather - this number may seem rather modest. But for Major League Soccer (MLS), the new American soccer league finishing up its first year, it is a welcome achievement. "We thought the {season} attendances would be in the 10 to 12,000 range," says Mark Abbott, the director of financial affairs for MLS. "Right now we're averaging around 18,000. That's a pretty sizeable amount to exceed your original expectations by." For now, MLS is set on reaching achievable goals - increasing fan support, solidifying its financial situation, and signing quality players. And although they have run into a few problems, they are determined not to try to do too much too fast - and for good reason. So far, America is still not a "soccer country." Before the 1994 World Cup, the game had virtually no history here. Now, MLS is determined to steadily build support. Good publicity has helped. While the explosion of nationwide coverage during the opening of the season has died away, local fans and local media have continued to support their teams. "When something starts out, there's going to be an initial bang, and we got that," Mr. Abbott says. "What's impressed me is that it has sustained itself throughout the season - not at the same intensity - but good, basic, everyday coverage." Jonathan Kraft, the primary investor who runs the New England Revolution, says the Boston area was ready for soccer. "We've been pleasantly surprised by the kind of pent-up demand that exists for soccer {here}," he says. Chosen to host the first MLS championship on Oct. 20, the Revolution has succeeded in some areas that even more well-established Boston sports teams have not. "The crowds have been extremely heterogeneous," he adds. "If you go to a game for any other major league sport in this town, you'll find a predominantly white, male, adult crowd." The diversity of MLS's fan-base has helped buoy the league this year, but Abbot points to two other key ingredients. Average ticket prices have stayed firm at $13, he says, and the league is getting more money from sponsors than expected - including commitments for $50 million over the next four years. …