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Excuse MLS Boss Logan if He Expects Big Things

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Catch-phrases can sometimes be just that. Once uttered, they can come back to haunt you.

Take, for example, the comment made a few days ago by Doug Logan, commissioner of Major League Soccer, which Saturday opens its fourth season, possibly its most arduous so far.

“As I’ve said before, 1999 represents for us ‘The Year of No Excuses’ ” Logan said, voicing a phrase that he is certain to be reminded of on Nov. 21, when the eight-month grind is over, the facts and figures are in and everyone once again is asking: “Can MLS make it?”

“During our first three years,” Logan continued, “we competed with a lot of things. . . . This year, we have no new teams, no competition for attention with the World Cup, the Olympic Games or World Cup qualifiers.”

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In other words, if MLS games are dull, if MLS attendance is down, if TV ratings dip again, the fault can be put squarely on the league offices in New York. It is, after all, “The Year of No Excuses,” so nothing can be blamed but the product itself.

Since the last ball of 1998 was kicked at the Rose Bowl and the Chicago Fire was handed the championship trophy, much has happened.

* One team has changed hands, Robert Kraft and family having kicked in a few more million and bought the San Jose Clash from the league.

* Two coaches have changed jobs, Thomas Rongen having taken over Washington D.C. United after being fired by the New England Revolution, which, in turn, made goalkeeper Walter Zenga MLS’s first player-coach.

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* There will be only four foreign players per team from now on, not five, making the league more American, but possibly less fan-attractive.

* The firing of Sunil Gulati as deputy commissioner in a power struggle means soccer-savvy leadership is thin at the top.

* The bizarre single-entity structure in which the league controls all player movement, the ludicrously low $1.7-million salary cap and the controversial shootout are still with us.

But there is also good news. Overall season ticket sales are up 3%, Houston and Philadelphia head a pack of cities clamoring for expansion teams in 2001, the quality of play has gradually improved and, best of all, at least one of the dozen teams finally has a home to call its own.

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The decision by Lamar Hunt to invest more than $20 million in building a 22,500-seat, soccer-only stadium for his Columbus Crew could mark a turning point in the sport’s future in America. If MLS can add 15 more such stadiums, its future is assured. Crew season ticket sales, by the way, are up 48%.

Last season, attendance held steady, averaging 14,312 a game, down only fractionally from 14,616 in 1997. It should not dip in ’99, now that more games have been switched from midweek to weekends.

Television ratings have not been spectacular (0.9 for 12 games on ABC and falling from 0.49 to 0.44 on ESPN and 0.26 to 0.21 on ESPN2), but the three networks are back in the fold, along with Univision, the Spanish-language network. In all, 63 games, including the All-Star game July 17 in San Diego, will be televised nationally.

All of which leaves it up to the players on the field and the coaches on the sideline. For them, it certainly won’t be “The Year of No Excuses.” The Revolution’s Zenga put it best.

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“I can win 10 games in a row and be a king,” he said, “or I can lose 10 games and be a clown, be considered stupid. We will find out which it will be during the season.”


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