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Unity Still U.S. Goal in Soccer : Election: Despite World Cup success, Rothenberg will face three challengers today in his bid to remain U.S. federation president.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Four years ago at another resort hotel on a different coast, soccer found itself at a crossroads. After a weekend of intrigue, power plays and agonized debate, soccer moved into the fast lane, electing Los Angeles attorney Alan Rothenberg president of the U.S. Soccer Federation.

And now, Rothenberg is here at the USSF’s annual general meeting, seeking reelection. And the same kind of back-room politics is driving this presidential campaign, in which there are three challengers to Rothenberg. They, though, are battling the same savvy that Rothenberg employed to gain victory in 1990.

On the eve of the last election, a spokesman for FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, called one of the candidates and asked him to withdraw. The candidate refused and, in an outraged address to the convention on the morning of the vote, accused Rothenberg of bringing in outsiders to influence the election.

This time around, FIFA was much closer than a phone call from Zurich. FIFA president Joao Havelange and senior vice president Guillermo Canedo showed up at a cocktail party held by Rothenberg on Thursday night. Lest any delegates miss the connection, Havelange--the sport’s most powerful figure--was in the ballroom only three minutes before he, too, was wearing a Rothenberg campaign button.

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As he did in 1990, Rothenberg is running a high-profile, high-pressure campaign. Name recognition was an important goal in 1990, when Rothenberg noted his association with the defunct L.A. Aztecs professional team and his position as commissioner of soccer for the 1984 Olympic Games.

This election, Rothenberg is a known quantity--his campaign buttons refer only to his first name, as in, “Alan. For the Good of the Game” and, the theme of mutual self-interest, “Alan. He Wins, We Win.”

But familiarity might have bred contempt. Rothenberg’s tenure as USSF president ran concurrent to his term as chairman of the World Cup Organizing Committee. That led some soccer insiders to complain that even a man of Rothenberg’s enormous energy could not properly do both jobs.

And that was before MLS. Months before the start of World Cup, Rothenberg announced that he was also going to head a new professional league, Major League Soccer. It was Rothenberg’s connection with the for-profit MLS that led critics to accuse him of a conflict of interest.

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Rothenberg calls the situation a “confluence of interest” and says he can ably serve all of the USSF’s constituent groups--professional, amateur and youth.

The proposed new league has also become a campaign issue. Rothenberg said Thursday that the viability of MLS will be seriously compromised should he not win reelection. He even suggested that other candidates wanted MLS to fail, although their public remarks don’t support that contention.

Rothenberg has released information this week that will no doubt bolster his campaign boasts of engineering enormous financial success: The World Cup profit is expected to surpass $40 million, more than double the earlier projections.

Any discussion of money, however, invariably raises the thorny issue of World Cup bonuses and their impact on the legacy funds for soccer’s future. More than $14 million of the World Cup profit will go into a pool for severance, vacation pay and bonuses for about 500 employees of the World Cup Organizing Committee.

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The top executives--Rothenberg, Scott LeTellier and Elizabeth Primrose-Smith--are expected to receive bonuses of up to $2 million, with Rothenberg’s bonus capped at $3 million. The World Cup board of directors will vote on the matter after a final accounting.

These money matters are a big issue with Rothenberg’s opponents--Richard Groff, USSF treasurer; Hank des Bordes, USSF executive vice president, and Louis Palivos, president of the Illinois Soccer Assn.

Because of the bitter battle for the presidency--Rothenberg is not alone in calling the politicking ugly--a meeting of candidates was called in Dallas two weeks ago. A USSF official gamely asked the candidates to consider stepping down to avoid another public washing of soccer’s dirty laundry.

His suggestion was greeted with snorts and firm assurances from the candidates that none would pull out.

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The officials then pleaded with them to run clean campaigns free of personal attacks.

That has not happened. And despite a World Cup successfully behind it, soccer is back where it was four years ago, teetering on the brink of a momentous decision.


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