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On the practice fields at Westminster City Park, as Denver's newest pro sports team--the Colorado Rapids--runs through a few hours of drills quietly and with great discipline, one is struck by something amazing.
These guys seem like ordinary people.
There's no doubt the players on the field are superb athletes, but that only makes things stranger. Because when they go home, most retire not to mansions but to modest condominiums in Westminster, where many of them room together. Most get there in Hondas rather than BMWs, and most make far less money than even the most inept, bench-warming reserves in the other big sports. They're not spitting on fans, maybe because there are few fans to spit on. They are on occasion mobbed for autographs after their games in Mile High Stadium--while 50,000 empty seats look on. That's what happens when you're playing the world's most popular sport--soccer--in the place it is least appreciated: the United States.
The Colorado Rapids are one of ten teams in the country's latest pro sports venture, Major League Soccer. And despite the players' nonchalance, they are excited about what MLS represents: It's the first Division I soccer league in the United States since the North American Soccer League folded more than a decade ago. For the best players, it's a chance to return home after playing in Division I leagues abroad.
"All of us were hoping we could play in America," says mid-fielder Chris Henderson, who played on the U.S. World Cup team in 1990 as a nineteen-year-old and has since played overseas in Germany and Norway. "The publicity has been huge for MLS. It's been big in Europe."
But they're also sober: They know this could be soccer's best chance to catch on with the mainstream, and they can't afford the kind of self-indulgent behavior that sometimes tarnishes the public-relations images of football, basketball and baseball. "We have to get out there and help promote soccer," Henderson says. "It's not just gonna come."
Defender Dennis Hamlet adds, "We all should feel the pressure. We have to make this thing work."
The Rapids are an eclectic bunch--a collection of former American Professional Soccer League veterans, U.S. National Team heroes (all of whom have had to ply their trade overseas), indoor-soccer journeymen and several foreign stars--but under Bobby Houghton, they are beginning to gel into a smart and aggressive squad.
The English-born Houghton, who often wanders around the practice field alone, hands behind his back, deep in thought, seems to command their respect. In a practice before the Rapids' second home game, against the Kansas City Wiz, Houghton talks to his team about all the goals being scored in the league, a sign of mediocre defense. He critiques a recent MLS game between the Kansas City Wiz and the Columbus Crew. Kansas City won 6-4. Such high scores may be more pleasing to American fans unfamiliar with soccer's intricacies, but the players don't like it.
"That game is not soccer at the highest level," Houghton explains.
As the marketing juggernaut for MLS tries to deal with that long-standing problem, Denver's other professional soccer team, thirty miles away in Parker, is also preparing to get its season under way. The Colorado Foxes, currently the longest-running professional team in U.S. outdoor soccer, have already felt the impact of the new league's arrival. Five of their best players from last year have left the Foxes' league, the APSL (known as the "A League"), to join MLS. Three years ago they lost their coach, Dave Dir, who guided the team to back-to-back A League championships in 1992 and 1993, to an administrative job with MLS.
The Foxes finished only 8-16 last season under longtime assistant coach Lorne Donaldson, and they'll try to improve on that this year with a young and inexperienced squad. "Last year it didn't seem like guys were always focused," says starting goalie Trey Harrington, who thinks that part of the reason was the impending arrival of MLS. "They didn't want to go all out every game. This year the drive is back."
The Jamaican-born Donaldson describes his young charges as "lions," but he admits that "sometimes we're gonna be very good, sometimes we're gonna be very bad. All I'm looking for is a little consistency."
So is the A League, which in the past year has been demoted from being America's premier soccer league to being second banana. Last year, most observers say, the Foxes and A League teams in Seattle and Montreal were good enough to play in MLS. But the gap is widening, says Rapids goalkeeper and former A Leaguer Dusty Hudock, "because they're losing talent and we're gaining."
It may turn out that the Foxes' toughest competition this season will come from their new neighbors.
Denver is the only city in America with two professional soccer teams, and it's the place where soccer will once again meet its old enemy: the stigma that it is a boring sport with few scores and no excitement. Soccer is a favorite sport among American youth, but its future as a big-time pro sport that would demand Americans' time, money, attention and taxes may be revealed first in Denver.