Score One for Soccer; a New Pro League Wins Fans, and Maybe Profits
Starr, Mark, Newsweek
WHEN ALEXI LALAS ARRIVED IN Italy in 1994, the first American soccer player ever signed to the world's premier league, fans swarmed the airport tarmac to welcome him. But that reception now seems understated, at least compared with the banner--LALAS IS GOD--that greeted Lexi when he made his home debut with the New England Revolution in America's fledgling Major League Soccer (MLS). "Cool," the 25-year-old defender said afterward, of both the sign and the Revolution's 2-1 shoot-out victory over Washington last month. But Lalas bristled when asked how Italian fans would react to the tiebreaking shoot-out, designed solely for American appetites. "I really don't care," he said, water dripping from his unruly red hair onto a custom-made Italian suit. "I'm playing in America now."
Lalas has come home to check American professional soccer, as have other homegrown stars of the United States' surprising 1994 World Cup team--John Harkes from England, Eric Wynalda from Germany, Mike Burns from Denmark, Cobi Jones from Brazil and Marcelo Balboa and Tab Ramos from Mexico. They have enthusiastically embraced this latest effort to establish the world's game once and for all on a U.S. stage. Giving up the European prestige and pay was easy, says Lalas, when compared with the opportunity. "I don't want to look back years from now and think that I didn't do everything possible to help soccer succeed here," he says.
America's last serious pro soccer league died more than a decade ago, buried in red ink. And despite the overwhelming success of the '94 World Cup here, many believed--and even soccer's fervent boosters feared--that American spectators would embrace the game only as spectacle. But with the season only a month old, the new league has exceeded expectations: its 10 teams drew an average of 33,870 fans to home openers (including 69,000 at the Rose Bowl to watch the Los Angeles Galaxy), more than either the Italian or the English league could muster last season. Owners, who had predicted crowds averaging maybe 12,000 for the 32-game season, are now whispering about actually making a profit this year, unheard of in any start-up pro league. "We still think it will be a bit of a roller coaster, but so far, so good," says Commissioner Doug Corbett. "No doubt we underestimated the pent-up demand for soccer."
The MLS knew that America's ethnic communities, particularly newer immigrants, were hungry for the game; it bolstered those ties with some careful casting--an Irish coach in Boston, an Italian midfielder in New York, a Mexican goalie in Los Angeles. Less certain was that suburban Americans, for whom youth soccer is as much a sports staple as Little League baseball, could be transformed from eager participants to paying fans. So far the MLS has succeeded by emphasizing family entertainment (the Revolution's home stadium offers an area with interactive games and other kid fare) at family prices (a base ticket at $9 means a family of four can take in a Revolution game for under $50). "This isn't like football, where parents take their kids," says Revolution owner Robert Kraft, who also owns the NFL Patriots. …