WORLD CUP USA '94 : A Shallow Pool : MLS Wants to Stock Rosters With Home-Grown Players, But Who Will Be Available?


In attempting to figure out who will play in the fledgling organization known as Major League Soccer, perhaps the simplest and quickest way of defining the situation is to answer the question with a question.

Who won't play?

For starters, we'll take a look at the World Cup roster of the U.S. national team and start crossing off players who have been under contract and might be returning to teams in Mexico and Europe.

They include goalkeepers Brad Friedel (England) and Juergen Sommer (England), defenders Thomas Dooley (Germany) and Cle Kooiman (Mexico), midfielders John Harkes (England) and Tab Ramos (Spain), forwards Eric Wynalda (Germany), Frank Klopas (Greece), Roy Wegerle (England) and Ernie Stewart (Netherlands). Midfielder Hugo Perez seems set to return to Saudi Arabia where he played the 1992-93 season.

There are other Americans who could have been on the World Cup team if not for injury or other rationales but are also under contract to European clubs--goalkeeper Kasey Keller (England) and defender Brian Bliss (Germany), to name two.

The very success of the Americans in the World Cup is double-edged. It is promoting awareness and marketability of the top players, and, at the same time, teams from across the pond can't help but notice certain individuals.

Barely a week into the World Cup, national team general manager Bill Nuttall said there was a great deal of interest in at least four Americans. German clubs are said to be eyeing defender Marcelo Balboa and fleet forward/midfielder Cobi Jones. Injured midfielder Claudio Reyna previously had been courted by FC Barcelona. This could bring the number of non-available players off the U.S. roster to 14.

If you needed to identify a prototypical American player for MLS, two immediately come to mind--defender Alexi Lalas and goalkeeper Tony Meola, the sort of charismatic, trend-setting players around which leagues attempt to build.

"Our top concern is to have players who are capable of an approach to entertaining, attacking soccer," said Sunil Gulati of MLS, who is the chief international officer of competition for World Cup '94. "Their first responsibility is selling the sport on the field. We do plan to work with the community but their primary work has to be on the field."

But Lalas and Meola are more valuable because they can sell the sport off the field, appealing to various cross-sections of the public and crossing over to casual fans.

Meola has expressed interest in playing in MLS but says an offer from Europe could change his mind. And there's competition from other sports. Meola, drafted by the New York Yankees out of high school, is scheduled to attend the Kansas City Chief training camp on July 22, where he'll have a tryout as a kicker.

Lalas is curious about MLS.

"I made a point of asking for all the paperwork because, man, this is my future," he said. "I want to know what's going on. I'm not sporting the party line when I say I'm optimistic and impressed with the amount of research that's going into it.

"They've looked at past leagues that have failed and why they failed and the leagues that have succeeded--like the J-League in Japan. The organization and research has been tremendous. It pays for me to be optimistic. It's the future of soccer and who knows if I play in it or not? I might get an offer to go overseas, but you never know."

Even in the best of circumstances, if Meola and Lalas decide to play in MLS and the other remaining members of the U.S. team opt to do the same, that's only eight players and not all of them are recognizable.

Where are the rest of the players for the proposed 12-team league coming from?

Gulati said that three foreigners a team will be allowed, possibly four for the first season of play. That's 48 more players.

"The idea is to build the league around U.S.-based players," Gulati said. That would represent the flip side of the late NASL.

But if it's clear who won't be in MLS, who will?

"Nobody can give you an answer because they don't know. Because there are no players," says Al Mistri, soccer coach at Cal State Fullerton.

Mistri and others suggest the players might come from the post-college ranks. Of the 33 All-Americans each season, approximately 20 or so are seniors and would be eligible for the MLS player pool.

But there will be competition for those players, just like there is for every other player. The American Professional Soccer League has a large pool of players under contract. And even its officials are conservative on estimates of capable college players available.

"There are maybe 20 to 25 players who come out of the U.S. college system every year who can play top-level pro soccer immediately," said Alan Hinton, president and coach of the Seattle Sounders.

William De La Pena, APSL commissioner and owner of the Los Angeles Salsa, says the number is closer to 10.

For players, there are other concerns besides money. There has to be a high level of play.

"The most important thing for me is that it's got to be competitive," Harkes said. "To give all that up to come back here, that's going to be a difficult decision. They've got to make it worth my while."

Wynalda, who recently signed with FC Bochum in Germany, said the new league could not afford him. And he's right. There's not just the issue of salaries but also of transfer fees, the money that must be paid to a player's club for the rights to his contract.

"They also have to realize they have to compete financially," Lalas said. "I'm not naive, the money has to be right. I'm as pure as anybody else, but you still have to make a living. And athletics are so different. The frame of time when you make your money is so short.

"But they have to realize they have to compete with player salaries and they're gonna do that and they're gonna have to pay. But I think they're getting a damn good product, too."

The marketplace is crowded. So many teams, so many leagues, and so few quality players to go around.

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