- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 3, 2002

Major League Soccer long has made Washington a home away from home, staging two MLS Cups in the nation's capital and playing a supportive role for several U.S. national team qualifying matches.

Now the 7-year-old league is back in town with its annual All-Star Game today at RFK Stadium. Despite the questionable nature of the competition between a team of league all-stars and veterans of the U.S. men's team, MLS returns in perhaps its best shape ever.

The league's average attendance is 15,698. Though that trails last year's pace by about 2 percent, MLS is still on track based on ticket sales for the rest of the season to post a second consecutive full year increase at the gate. The streak comes after declines each year from 1997 through 2000.

The MLS ratings on ESPN have surged 20 percent since the national team's surprising run to the quarterfinals of the World Cup in June. Fiscal losses, while still deep into eight figures each year, have been trimmed considerably since the elimination of the Miami and Tampa Bay franchises in January.

Less than seven months after that contraction, MLS executives are even thinking expansion for 2004 or 2005 and will play host to potential investor groups from both Cleveland and Tulsa, Okla., today. Luring new investors into MLS beyond the core trio of Phil Anschutz, Bob Kraft and Lamar Hunt has long been a problem area for the league.

Sponsorship is up significantly, most recently with Nike renewing its deal with the league for another three years and ADT signing on.

A crowd of more than 30,000 is expected today at RFK, putting the league in a position to post perhaps its second-best turnout for its All-Star Game. The inaugural event in 1996 drew 78,416 to Giants Stadium.

For fans at home, today's telecast on ABC will feature microphones in the goal mouths and on the sidelines and benches, as well as enhanced graphics and animation.

"It would be naive to suggest that we don't have a long way to go yet. We're certainly not where the other established sports league are," MLS commissioner Don Garber said. "But we are without a doubt on the right track."

The improved numbers are the result of significant belt-tightening and management scrutiny across the league, particularly of ticket sales and budgeting. But not surprisingly, the biggest boost to recent MLS fortunes has been the U.S. World Cup run.

The league, through sister company Soccer United Marketing, had a significant stake in the event because it owns the U.S. English language TV rights to the World Cup and aired games on ESPN and ABC. The U.S. team's quarterfinal game against Germany provided ESPN with its best ratings for any programming between April and June, regardless of time slot.

Since the World Cup ended in late June, fans have flocked to MLS games in greater numbers and investors long wary of the league's troubled balance sheets have shown a greater receptiveness to consider MLS' pitch.

"If nothing else, this event proved that the U.S. is not only ready to compete at the world level in soccer but is competing," Garber said. "We're certainly getting our phone calls returned [from prospective investors] much quicker since the end of May. And we're a much more stable operation since our contraction."

Despite this success and the celebration of soccer planned for today, plenty of pressing issues remain for MLS. Deep losses again will prevent the league from increasing its restrictive salary cap of $1.7million a club next year, Garber said. And Qwest Communications, the Denver-based telecom giant that Anschutz founded and has the most stock in, is now under federal investigation for accounting irregularities, providing a potentially nasty black eye for the league.

One of the league's biggest problems is in Washington: D.C. United. The former three-time league champion is on track for another last-place finish, attendance at RFK is off by more than 10 percent and the home field for the team next year and beyond remains an open question. Long-held plans for a new soccer-specific stadium for both United and the Washington Freedom remain well behind original timetables.

Garber, who was set to meet last night with D.C. Sports & Entertainment Commission president Bobby Goldwater, believes the District's hot pursuit of a major league baseball team is partly to blame.

"We need to know where the [commission] stands," Garber said. "We've kept the stadium open for seven years and given the city an international platform [for soccer]. We think this really has benefited the area. It is crucial we continue our discussions and keep at this."

Goldwater said yesterday that United will be in RFK next year but that progress is being made on a new stadium. No formal proposals, however, are expected soon.

"We are continuing to explore the possibility of a new stadium, and United will be here next year, with or without baseball," Goldwater said. "We think we have a clear understanding with the team on that. We are proud of our soccer tradition and have every expectation that will continue."

On a broader level, MLS' pursuit of soccer-specific stadiums to showcase the sport also remains a tough fight. The New England Revolution are set in the Patriots' new CMGI Field in Foxboro, Mass., and a state-of-the-art stadium in Los Angeles will open next year. But United, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and the Dallas Burn are seeking new homes. Any incoming expansion team also needs a defined plan for a new soccer-friendly stadium.

"With the right ownership, the right fan support and the right stadium, we certainly would consider expansion markets that are not necessarily the largest ones out there available," Garber said.

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