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  • SOCCER

    MLS fortunes tied to U.S. World Cup performance

  • I have depressing news for America's soccer fans:
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  • I have depressing news for America's soccer fans:
    The USA is not going to win the World Cup this summer.
    The World Cup this time will be a success for USA if it survives its tough round-robin group — with Ghana, Germany and Portugal — and earns a place on the subsequent 16-team tournament bracket.
    Advancing to the quarterfinals after that would be a preposterous bonus.
    Advancing to the semifinals would be conceivable only to someone on psychedelic drugs.
    All that aside, however, there is one significant subtext to this World Cup summer — and it even applies to the current USA training camp that's taking place on Stanford University's campus over the next two weeks:
    Depending on what happens between now and mid-July, Major League Soccer can take a big leap up in credibility, or it can take a face plant in terms of respect, or it can remain in its current "meh" state.
    Of those three options, only the first one is an acceptable result for the MLS, the USA's top professional league.
    And we'll start to see how that shapes up soon. By fate or design, the 30-man roster at Stanford right now is split evenly between players from MLS and players from foreign clubs.
    There are 15 men from MLS.
    There are 15 men from clubs in the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and several other distant locales. There are two from the Mexican League, which is not so distant but is indeed externally American.
    This obviously creates a challenge for Jurgen Klinsmann, the USA national team coach.
    First, he must blend together the players and create as cohesive a unit as possible.
    Simultaneously, he must also be judge and jury as he determines which men to cut from the squad. The roster must be pared to 23 players before leaving for South America.
    If a majority of the seven players cut from the roster at Stanford are from the MLS, well, that would not be a good thing for that league. But if the eventual 23-man roster does contain more MLS players than foreign-based players, well, that could also work out badly if the USA team goes to Brazil and lays an egg.
    The MLS's only fruitful options here are pretty well defined. Its players must make the team and help contribute to victories — although some believe it's a mini-triumph for the MLS just to have such a big presence at the Stanford camp. The USA's 2010 World Cup roster contained only four MLS players. A minimum of eight will make it this time. The MLS has made undeniable progress since the league's first game in 1996. But the league's television ratings still barely fog the radar — and the MLS remains well behind the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR on the casual American sports fan's radar. In fact, soccer hipsters in the USA seemed to have gravitated more toward the weekly telecasts of English Premier League games.
    No surprise. The MLS's biggest challenge in America has never been winning over generic sports fans to soccer. Rather, its biggest challenge is the attempt to win over soccer fans to the MLS. Many are snobs who would rather follow the great players and teams in Europe. You can hardly blame them. Here's why: American sports consumers are spoiled and demanding. When they buy a season ticket to a "major league" event in every other sport, they know that they will be patronizing the planet's best league in that particular sport.
    For example, the NBA is the best basketball league in the world. The NHL is the best hockey league in the world. Major League Baseball is the best baseball league in the world. The NFL is obviously the best "American football" league in the world.
    But in soccer, MLS is ... well, maybe the 10th-best league in the world, at best. Many soccer snobs believe it's not worthy of their patronage. They point to the USA's World Cup roster as evidence. Until something radical changes, America's best players usually will opt for club teams in Europe if they have that option. The MLS's economics and pay scale can't compete. So it's a conundrum. American soccer snobs will stay away from MLS games and won't watch them on television unless the world's best players are in MLS uniforms. But the MLS teams can't sign the world's best players until their revenue improves from higher attendance and larger television ratings.
    No one expects this USA World Cup team to move mountains on behalf of the MLS. But if the league's players manage to have big moments in Brazil, the needle will move in the right direction.
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