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Still Kicking

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.

"Colorado is the focal point," says Rapids general manager Richard Levine of the two leagues. "This is the place where we do have to share a market, and customers have the most direct choice of which brand of soccer they're going to support."

Considering pro soccer's record in the United States, the answer could be neither.

Underneath the veneer of optimism put forth by players and managers that enthusiasts will embrace both the Rapids and the Foxes, most agree that soccer fans will probably support one team or the other but that they lack the time, money and interest to support both.

"I think it does hurt both teams," veteran Foxes forward Jeff Hooker says. "No matter who wins, who loses and who draws a crowd, there's always gonna be one team drawing fans from the other."

Mike Haas, director of coaching for the Colorado Youth State Soccer Association, says one of the teams will be gone in two years, and Edward Eid, president of the Colorado State Soccer Association, adds, "You have an MLS and an A League team in the same city, the A League is not going to last."

Despite the 61,000 registered youth soccer players in Colorado, and despite setting A League attendance records last year, the Foxes pulled in only 6,000 people a game last year in the 76,000-seat Mile High Stadium. The franchise is considered one of the strongest in the A League, with a budget close to $1 million. But they have never made money and have been kept afloat only because of the wealth of their owner, German businessman Martin Nixdorf, and his love for the game.

"Martin Nixdorf has invested a lot of money through the years," says Foxes president Rich Karlis, "and he won't pull out, because our commitment is to continue to play."

Even their recent home opener at the newly refurbished Mile High Greyhound Park drew just over 7,000 people. "Can two teams survive?" asks Karlis, a former kicker for the National Football League's Denver Broncos. "It remains to be seen. I would have told you before this year that Denver can't even support us. I'm not sure it can support someone with a budget twice the size."

While the Foxes may have deep pockets, the league they play in does not. The A League began with 22 teams in 1990, and this year it has only 7. "It's very likely they [the Foxes] will be squeezed out," Levine says. "Not because of the Rapids, but because of the overall weakness of the A League's structure. The Foxes are the class of the A League, but the other franchises are not as strong."

Brad Pursel, PR director of the A League, insists that the league is doing fine and that new franchises in Toronto and Philadelphia are set to begin play next spring, but many wonder whether all seven A League teams will still be playing ball at the end of the season.

"I really feel that for Colorado, the best possible deal would be for two teams, in Denver and Colorado Springs," says Francisco Markos, chairman of yet a third soccer league, the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues. Markos envisions merging the Foxes with the Pikes Peak Stampede, the USISL amateur team in Colorado Springs. "Otherwise, you're going to be fighting for space, and the big guy's going to win. It's that simple. The Foxes have been here six years; the Rapids have been here one month. In two games they've probably drawn more people than a whole season of Foxes games."

Markos is the final piece in soccer's hotly contested market. Only weeks ago the top tier of his league--which has more than 120 teams--was promoted from Division III amateur to Division II professional, the same designation the A League has now.

"Establishing a different league as the second league is one of the final blows of A League," Eid says. "It's another nail."

This month officials and team owners from the USISL and the A League will get together to discuss the possibility of a merger--which may be the A League's salvation. Markos admits the relationship between leagues has been tense, especially after a USISL team, the New York Fever, jumped ship and joined the A League this year.

 

Markos realizes that both his league and the A League are Division II; perhaps the Division II clubs could help one another. "We could certainly use them; they probably need us," he says. "It would be the most sensible thing to do, But soccer people are not known to be the most sensible all the time."

Egos may be how Denver ended up with two soccer teams, though initially there was only supposed to be one. Major League Soccer has been in planning since 1991, and it was guaranteed to go after World Cup '94, staged throughout the U.S., generated $40 million and was the most successful World Cup event ever. Five million dollars of that was used to seed MLS, and $75 million more came from the league's six investor-operators, who include Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, American Football League founder Lamar Hunt, Metromedia Company (which owns everything from Orion Pictures to Bennigan's), and MLS founder and United States Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg.

At first the new league approached A League franchises--including the Foxes--about joining, but most of the teams didn't have enough money. (MLS franchises have a minimum budget of $4 million.) The Foxes did have the money, but Nixdorf didn't like the league's "single-entity" ownership plan, which would require him to turn over half of his team's ownership to the league itself. In MLS, the league owns the teams and actually operates the three squads that don't have investor/operators like Anschutz or Hunt. This single-entity idea, along with the league's cautious, slow-growth business plan, is designed to promote parity and stability so that all the teams move together toward profit.

But given the limited support shown for one team, the Foxes weren't eager to "spend more money to lose more money," Karlis says. "Denver may be a market where 5,000 to 6,000 people you can get out to a game. But anything short of a World Cup, people aren't going to show up in droves."

Despite the obstacles soccer faces, especially in a city with four other professional sports teams and a host of outdoor recreational options, and despite the less than overwhelming support the sport has received here so far, both teams act as if they're planning to stay awhile. The Foxes just moved to the Mile High Greyhound Park in Commerce City, a 10,000-seat stadium that's more intimate than Mile High Stadium, their home last year. The track's owners, United Track Racing, Inc., just completed a $3 million renovation and negotiated a five-year lease with the Foxes.

The Rapids, meanwhile, have a three-year lease at Mile High Stadium, and Levine says there's a "very strong possibility" that the City of Westminster might build the team an outdoor soccer facility in the next few years.

As he talks about his new team, Levine has the buoyant confidence of a boy who's just been given a large toy to play with. And who can blame him? His league has the blessings of FIFA, soccer's international governing body, and TV networks like ESPN and ABC; it also has $50 million in commercial sponsorship from companies including Nike and AT&T. And while no one expects MLS to make money in the first few years, Levine says that none of the investors or supporters plan to pull out of soccer, or out of Denver, anytime soon.

"While this year there's gonna be without question more money going out than coming back, what you'll see is, over time those things will reverse themselves," Levine says.

MLS is the closest thing to the big time in American soccer since the sport's glory days in the late Seventies, when the North American Soccer League fielded stars like Pele and drew football- and baseball-sized crowds in cities like Tampa Bay and New York. The New York Cosmos posted attendance figures of more than 70,000 for ten games between 1977 and 1980.

But increasing player salaries, overexpansion and the nagging problem of maintaining a fan base eventually cost the league its life. The NASL had 24 teams at its peak in 1980; only nine teams were left when the league folded four years later.

Levine has faith in MLS's conservative business plan, and he is in especially good spirits the day after the Rapids crush the Wiz at Mile High, 4-0. In fact, he's given his staff the day off, and the 33rd floor of the Rapids' downtown offices are empty.

Levine says that when he began the job, he sent a letter to Karlis expressing his admiration for the Foxes and his hope that they could work together on such activities as closed scrimmages and joint clinics and player appearances. But Levine says he's not spending much time these days thinking about his soccer colleagues across town: "On any given day, I think more about the Rockies and their schedule, and the Avalanche and their schedule, and the Nuggets and their schedule, and the Broncos and their schedule, than I do about the Foxes."

 

Correspondence and best wishes have been about the extent of the teams' relations with each other, relations Karlis deems simply as "unexplored." While there's no noticeable antipathy on any side--everyone seems interested in promoting soccer--the teams say they simply have more pressing things on their minds than each other.

But Levine bristles when comparisons are brought up between teams in the two leagues. "I think I would line up my starting eleven with any team in the A League," he says, "and I would say that anyone who thinks that there is any starting eleven that could be assembled on any A League or USISL team would be making a statement that could not be supported by a reference to these players' pedigrees."

Levine loves to talk about his players, who are developing an aggressive, cut-to-the-chase style of soccer where team members try to advance the ball up the field as quickly as possible, isolate their fastest players against defenders and try to score. It's a strategy designed to prevent opponents from having time to set up their defense, and it requires extraordinary speed.

Despite their early-season difficulties, the Rapids seemed to practice what they preach on May 5, when they took the field against Kansas City. Mile High had been transformed into a smaller venue by covering all the upper-deck seating, as well as most of the end-zone seating, with orange and purple tarps. The effect is weird: The game feels larger than life in such a huge venue, but it also feels somehow less than real because there are so few people in attendance. The 11,070 people who showed up (in line with the Rapids' attendance expectations but down more than 10,000 from the home opener) look like a few thousand, at most. It's like watching a sport go through the motions that no one else is watching.

Probably more than any other sport, soccer is about motion. There are few stoppages of play. So while the playing time of the game is long--two 45-minute halves--the actual game time is short, because the action never stops. This speeds the game up, but it also gives it a leisurely cast. When a Wiz player goes down, a minute passes before anyone stops playing. And even then, the clock never stops, so the game can be "on" when nothing is happening.

That day, the Rapids trounced the Wiz so badly that even the non-soccer faithful knew a rout was in progress. And that suited the crowd, already in a festive mood because of Cinco de Mayo.

The mood was probably too festive. In one section sat the Hispanic members of GuanaJuato, one of Colorado's amateur-league champions who were honored at halftime. In great spirits as they watched the game, the green-jerseyed players were soon interrupted by Mile High security, who were fishing around for a soccer ball that was kicked up in the stands and wasn't thrown back. The players feigned ignorance, meanwhile passing the ball among themselves. Two stern Denver cops arrived moments later and began ordering the players to open up their duffel bags for inspection.

To the "surprise" of one of the players, the missing soccer ball popped out of his bag; the police promptly threw him out. But he did not leave alone, because the rest of the team, more elated than angry, joined their comrade and loudly marched out of the stadium.

The next ball kicked into the stands nearby was thrown back, to the boos of many fans.

The day before, the Foxes had cruised to an easy victory themselves, but in a more serene surrounding. They pounded the Pikes Peak Stampede in a scrimmage in Colorado Springs on a bush-league field in front of an appreciative but mostly uninvolved crowd--they appeared to be mostly parents of young soccer players rather than fans themselves. The attendance of about 2,600 was a record crowd.

The following week the team traveled to Los Angeles to scrimmage with the L.A. Galaxy, an MLS team. The Foxes won the game 3-2 on the strength of a 3-0 shootout at the end of regulation.

It's when the subject of scrimmages comes up that the Rapids and Foxes seem far less cooperative than either would have you believe. "We will, they won't," says Hooker. "Here we have to fly to Los Angeles and pay $7,000 for a trip just to play a team that's at our level. The Rapids are playing colleges and teams they would probably rather have not played. We could have been playing each other once a week during the preseason, and that would have helped both teams."

 

Many point out the need of MLS to distance itself from other leagues in order to establish identity--not to mention the need to avoid humiliation by losing to a supposedly inferior team from a lower-classification league. "The notion of superiority or inferiority on the field is the kind of thing where feelings get hurt," Levine says, worried that such a scrimmage, especially if open to the media and public, could cause players not to take it seriously and get injured. (Galaxy coach Lothar Osiander says his team was rather lackadaisical in its play against the Foxes.)

Levine goes on: "If we wanted to play it in front of the public and we wanted to assert our dominance or show that we were superior, then it might not be a fair thing to do to players who are on their squad who are playing on a team that's at its own level. They're not going to play each other."

"On the playing field," Donaldson counters, "it's a level ballfield. Maybe in two years there'll be a difference, but it's not there yet. I take one team like Montreal Impact, in Canada--they have more international players than any MLS team has. On paper they're a better team; on the field I also think they're a better team. At the very least if you played six games, they'd end up winning three."

There are no plans for joint efforts like clinics. And when comparing the leagues, A Leaguers might be getting a bit defensive. "If you look at a player like [Carlos] Valderrama [two-time South American player of the year now playing for MLS in Tampa Bay], we don't have a Valderrama in our league," Hooker says. "Yet if you look at other teams' starting lineup, they don't have eleven very good players. There's holes in everybody. I think that's one thing that we have. Even though we have a lot of youth, we have depth across the board."

But how long will that depth remain, as A League is forced to accept its new role as an MLS farm league?

"In about two, three years, the top players in America will be playing in MLS," Foxes captain Chris Martinez says. "A League can't just pack it in and close shop now, because if MLS doesn't succeed, then what's the point? You've just ruined a good league."

"There's no jealousy between the players in any league," Hooker says. "I don't think players think of A League as a stepping-stone but as 'This is my career right now, and I need to do the best I can, and whatever happens after that happens.'"

On a recent afternoon in May, the Foxes open their home season against the Seattle Sounders, against whom they had lost in Seattle 2-1 on a penalty kick. The day is perfect. A few hours before the game, Foxes players look relaxed, hanging out and chatting outside the locker room or sitting on the bleachers. They even greet the visiting Sounders players like old chums when they get off the team bus.

By game time it's a different story. "This is it, fellows," Donaldson booms at them in the locker room. "This is what we've been working for. We have to get the first fucking one." He tells them to spread out the field and, when the chance to score arrives, to "crash the fucking box" in front of the other team's goal. "If somebody don't want to get into a fucking war, lemme know now. We'll change the lineup."

The players look focused and say little, and they go out and dominate the game's first twenty minutes. Seattle gets little offense going until it scores a goal off a free penalty kick. And then momentum shifts; Seattle scores again and enters the second half in comfortable control.

But newcomer Wolde Harris, a former Clemson University star, sparks a comeback. Weaving through Sounders with great artistry, he ties the game at the 73rd minute. And then, with less than a minute to go, the Foxes advance again--having already taken several more good shots at goal--and Harris finesses the ball past goalie Marcus Hahnemann. Harris tears his shirt off and charges madly around the field. Why did he tear off his shirt? "I had no clue," Harris says after the game, holding an ice pack behind his neck. "I've never done that before."

The crowd jams the fence between the seats and the field, hungry for autographs. "The Foxes showed they want to stay here," says David Castro, a youth-club coach in Arvada. "They could have easily packed up and left.

 


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