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Rapid Fire

With twenty minutes to go in the first half, Rapid Man is hunting down the rowdiest fan in the west stands. Not to throw him out of the place. To reward him. The rowdiest fan in the west stands, who turns out to be a guy standing on his seat, howling long and loud, is about to get an autographed ball and five seconds' worth of instant fame on the big screen. But first, Rapid Man--a frantic team mascot with a square head that looks like a huge chunk of roquefort cheese--kind of sits on top of the guy he's designated as rowdiest, messing him up, harrassing him in a rough-jokey kind of way. Rapid Man is just doing his job.

So is the public-address man. "Okaaaay!" he bellows. "Everybody stop clicking!" It's Columbia clicker night out at Mile High Stadium, and every one of the 10,742 Major League Soccer fans in the place has been given a little plastic clicking box. You're expected to click on command. "Okaaaay!" the announcer shouts. "Let 'em hear you way down in Tampa Bay! One! Two! Three! CLICK!"

It's the strangest sound you've ever heard in a stadium--like 11,000 sorority girls in high heels marching across polished wood. But even the crazies waving the green-and-gold Brazilian flags and the Mexican tri-colors and the national flags of Argentina and Colombia start to CLICK! when they're told to click.

Somewhere, out there on the cool green grass of evening, there's a game going on.

Soccer. Futbol. Calcio. Call it what you want, most Americans still don't give a damn about it. But if the minds and the money behind Major League Soccer--now in its second season as "America's Division I league"--have any say, the MLS is destined to become the country's "fifth major pro sports league." But that will be a tall order. Last year the league's ten teams drew a total of 2.8 million fans--a million fewer than the Colorado Rockies, one big-league baseball club, drew to Coors Field in half as many dates.

Quick. Who won the MLS championship? If you said DC United, you're pretty good. If you also know that DC United is in Washington, D.C., you qualify as an MLS expert.

And who finished last in 1996? The Colorado Rapids did. The team's 11-21 record was worst in the league. So was its attendance--just 10,276 per home game.

This is America's best sports town? Where grown men will rat out their mothers to the FBI for a couple of Avs playoff tickets? Where the baseball stadium is packed to the flags even when the Pirates come to visit? Where John Elway is a living god and season tickets on the forty-yard line are more precious family heirlooms than Aunt Ruthie's diamond necklace?

It's the same place, all right. A place where defunct pro soccer teams--indoors and out--are piled a mile high on the trash heap of history. The Caribous. The Kickers. The Dynamite--or were they the Dynamos? Yes, even the Denver Avalanche. Who can remember? There were half a dozen others, in a forgotten alphabet soup of failed leagues. But the Colorado Rapids mean to find their niche. Even if Rapid Man has to shoo people into the ballpark at gunpoint.

To start with, the team has a new coach--former U.S. National team captain and Olympic team assistant coach Glenn "Mooch" Myernick. He has thrown out the antique English "long ball" style of his predecessor, Bob Houghton, in favor of a hard-nosed, possession-oriented game designed to test the stamina of opponents in the altitude of Mile High Stadium. The team has also signed half a dozen new faces, with a special emphasis on Latin players attractive to Denver's 350,000 Hispanics.

Mid-fielder Jorge "Tote" Castaneda is a gifted flea from Guadalajara, Adrian Paz is a mid-fielder late of the Uruguayan national team, and Rafael Amaya is a Colombian mid-fielder/defender who's moved up from Denver's other pro soccer team, the Colorado Foxes. The Foxes, who play their games out at Mile High Kennel Club, are the Rapids' A-league affiliate, its top farm club. As if thing weren't confusing enough.

Two weeks ago the Rapids also signed Mexican first-division star David Patino, who was leading Monterrey this season with ten goals and five assists. How good is Patino? "One of the 25 or 30 best players in Mexico," is how a team official describes him.

They join "Mr. Clean," Matt Kmosko, "the Minister of Defense," Marcelo Balboa, "the Golden Boy," Chris Henderson, and "Bicycle Man himself," Jamaican forward Wolde Harris, in a club that is already playing better this season (they're 3-5 after Saturday night's 2-0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Mutiny), if still not drawing much. Mooch's troops got 15,000 for the home opener against Columbus, but cold April weather kept all but 4,434 away from game two with league champ DC United, and the Dallas Burn attracted only 4,000-plus souls to Mile High on cold, rainy April 23. Rapid Man could probably have bothered everybody in the place.

Still, newly hired general manager Dan Counce is optimistic. "In 1996 this team didn't draw well," he explains, "because the franchise came in here and was misdirected from the start. We've made changes. We'll be a better team and we'll draw better." The target? 13,000-plus fans per game.

The heart of Counce's plan is marketing the Rapids to those 350,000 Hispanics he's sees as "traditional, good soccer fans for whom the game is a memorable part of their childhood and their culture." To that end, the team operates ticket outlets in bakeries, restaurants and grocery stores in Spanish-speaking neighborhoods, uses bilingual advertising and, in contrast to 1996, "when there was no visible Hispanic face on the team," is able to merchandise Patino and Paz and "Tote."

Clearly, it's a league-wide strategy. One detail: In the program for Saturday's game, the MLS commissioner signs his name at the bottom of his English-language letter of welcome on page nine. There it is--Douglas G. Logan. But underneath the Spanish version of the letter, he is suddenly Douglas Logan Mendoza.

The results? On Saturday night the Rapids-Mutiny game attracted, among others, Juan Gutierrez, wrapped head to foot in the Mexican flag, and Juan's six sons--ages nine to fourteen. The family, which moved here from Tijuana seven years ago, went to 1996 games, too, because they love the sport, but things weren't quite the same. Ask the excited Gutierrez ninos who their favorite players are this year, and an enthusiastic chorus of sibling rivalry rings out: "Paz!" "Tote!" "Amaya!"

And how does a working man take six sons to a futbol game? The Rapids have thought of that, too. You can buy $5 walk-up tickets. The big-deal seats go for $11 and $16.

The game also drew a man named Antony (no last names, please), who was furiously waving a Brazilian flag but in reality hails originally from Puerto Rico. How's the quality of play out there? he was asked. Here came the San Juan shrug. "Not bad. Could be a lot better. Give 'em a couple of years."

Or some big-time dinero. To say it plainly, a top-drawer player in Mexico, Italy or Argentina earns a million-plus bucks a year, not including incentives. MLS teams stuff twenty players underneath a $1.4 million salary cap. The top guys--Buenos dias, Senor Patino--get no more than $192,000 per season; most make about $35,000.

On Saturday night, everybody at Mile High got a plastic clicker...and they got a beautiful evening of sport. Zero-zero at the half--the kind of inert score MLS officials know Americans hate--the game turned on two swift, highly artistic second-half goals by Steve Trittschuh and Paz that suddenly overwhelmed the force-fed enthusiasm of mascots and announcers with real emotion. Like baseball, soccer is a game of low-key action and sustained crisis that suddenly erupts into glory or tragedy. A beautiful game, but largely unappreciated here except at World Cup time.

Can the MLS survive? Can big-league soccer make it in Denver? No one can say for sure, but the Rapids, like their predecessors, may already have two strikes against them. For one thing, many of those 350,000 Colorado Hispanics Dan Counce talks about were born and raised right here in the United States and don't care any more about soccer than their grandparents--also born here--did. Fact is, they're stone Broncos fans. For another, Denver is a middle-sized market. The MLS teams in bigger cities like Washington and Los Angeles draw on huge ethnic populations that love the game with a passion, whereas clubs in smaller cities like Columbus or San Jose don't have to compete for entertainment dollars with other big-league sports team.

By contrast, consider Denver, just two million metro: Saturday night's Rapids game with Tampa Bay was sandwiched between Friday and Sunday night Avalanche home playoff games. It followed a Saturday afternoon Rockies tilt with the Phillies and preceded another one by fourteen hours or so. No wonder Rapid Man was sitting on people. He didn't want anyone to leave.

"We have to stand on our own," Counce says. "There's a niche--an economic and a cultural niche--for soccer here. It's just up to us find it and to attract the fans. To catch on."

In other words, to go One! Two! Three!


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