- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 4, 2006

Believe it or not, the biggest game in town tomorrow won’t be Redskins-Cowboys at FedEx Field.

Far from it, in fact.

Over at RFK Stadium, where George Allen’s Redskins and Tom Landry’s Cowboys used to duke it out, D.C. United will be playing the New England Revolution in MLS’s Eastern Conference final — a contest fraught with real rather than merely nostalgic significance.

Go ahead, snicker if you’re so inclined. Pro soccer in the United States remains a fur piece from the NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball in terms of public awareness, but its day would seem to be coming.


At 4 p.m., or thereabouts, a gang of guys in short pants will commence booting about a black and white ball in the forlorn hope that it might find its way into a net. This might take a while — heck, a team that scores four goals in soccer is sort of an offensive juggernaut, which is why most U.S. fans look elsewhere for their sporting kicks. But if goals are infrequent, any soccer struggle offers plentiful rewards in athleticism and heady play, if you’ll pardon a pun.

Through the world, soccer — or football, as it’s called most other places — is the favorite sport of untold millions. In these parts, though, it’s still a second-class citizen, so to speak. Every now and then, a team will capture folks’ imagination, as the women’s national team did in 1999. But for most devotees of “the beautiful game,” progress in this favored land is slow and unsteady.

Like every other American squad, D.C. United has to scrape and scrap for every nugget of attention it can get. And that’s not right, because the lads in red and black are just about the most successful franchise in D.C. history.

Over seven decades, the almighty Redskins have won five league championships: NFL titles in 1937 and 1942, Super Bowls following the seasons of 1982, 1987 and 1991. Two baseball clubs called the Senators won one World Series between them (1924). A basketball team with two names (Bullets and Wizards) won one NBA title (1978). The Caps’ next NHL championship will be their first.

So in a sporting sense, we’re mostly the land of Unpleasant Living? Well not quite, thanks to poor, little D.C. United.

When United dashes onto RFK’s greensward tomorrow, it will be two mere victories away from a fifth MLS Cup championship, tying the Redskins’ title total. And consider this: The Redskins needed 55 seasons to take all those crowns (1937 to 1991); United could do it in 11. And according to coach Peter Nowak, there’s more at stake than just collecting hardware.

“This is a model franchise for Major League Soccer,” Nowak said this week after United practiced for tomorrow’s showdown and possibly a date against Whoever in MLS Cup ‘06 on Nov. 12 in Frisco, Texas. “[The league] already is a part of the major sports community, but we must reach out for the casual fan. We need a TV [analyst] like John Madden who can explain to viewers what they are seeing, someone who is respected — perhaps also a former coach.

“As for D.C. United, we need to win. There is nothing like success to bring out fans, sponsors and television viewers.”

Years after the North American Soccer League floundered and folded, MLS seems to have found a formula for at least moderate success. All teams come under the league’s protective corporate wing, and three of them (United, Chicago Fire, Los Angeles Galaxy) are owned by Philip Anschutz’s AEG Group. Several teams play in new, soccer-specific stadiums; United is scheduled to get its own 27,000-seat playpen on the Anacostia Waterfront, hopefully by 2009.

United sports a very vocal and heavily Latino fan base — one that contributed heavily to this season’s average attendance of 18,215 for 16 games at RFK, fifth highest in the league and more than 2,700 over the MLS average. Not bad for a team that plays in a 45-year-old stadium located in a dubious section of the District.

Yet the general public’s unfamiliarity with soccer and its identity as a foreign sport works against the likelihood of a dramatic increase in interest any time soon. What’s a “pitch,” and why do the zebras (in short pants, yet) pass out red and yellow cards? Whoever heard of winning a playoff series by playing to a tie, as United did in the Eastern semifinals against the New York Red Bulls? And why have a two-game semifinal series and a one-game conference championship?

And who in the name of Jaime Moreno are those people in the stands waving flags and yowling in some other language, the screaming meemies? Oops, sorry, those are the Screaming Eagles, one of United’s more fervent fan clubs. Restraint ain’t their thing.

“But MLS is absolutely moving in the right direction,” said Ben Olsen, a former University of Virginia midfielder who has labored in D.C. United’s vineyard since 1998. “Here in Washington, we know that a lot of people have been Redskins fans for a long time and didn’t grow up with soccer. I can see a day when we’ll have 50,000 at our games. But now, yeah, I can go to the store or out to dinner without being bothered too much by people.”

Two years ago, MLS committed one of its few strategic blunders when it made Freddy Adu, a 14-year-old youth star from Potomac, its highest-paid player and the focus of its promotional effort. Staggering under totally ridiculous pressure, Adu proved so callow by professional standards that Nowak didn’t start him in most games that season — prompting some to describe his career as Much Adu About Nothing.

Two years later, Freddy is much improved and contributing, though his two goals and eight assists this season are hardly Beckhamian numbers.

“I was made the face of the league and then sat on the bench — that puzzled me,” said Adu, now a doddering 17, “but it’s hard to judge my own play. As a rookie, that was a lot to leave on me. After a while, I had to do a reality check. But the coach has his reasons, and even if I don’t agree, I respect them.”

Olsen said: “Freddy knows he’s a long way from being a great soccer player. He’s made strides, but he’s nowhere near his potential.”

The same, of course, can be said of pro soccer in the United States. Let’s check back in, say, 10 years.

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