Soccer Business by Jack Ferdon for SBS 

Mother Russia Gives EPL a Sugar Daddy

The Russians are coming! The Russians are coming!

And they don't look like Anna Kournikova! But they're going to England, not America! And they're being welcomed by forlorn British soccer fans like they??????re the second coming of Churchill! And they're billionaires! But they came into their fortunes illegitimately (according to Russian President Vladimir Putin)! And right now, there's only one of them!

His name is Roman Abramovich. He is 36 years old, worth an estimated $5.7 billion, and, since buying Chelsea of the Premier League in July, more popular in London than a pro bono orthodontist. Abramovich, who until recently held large interests in Russia's largest oil, aluminum, and car companies and is governor of a province in Siberia, has adopted the Mark Cuban-style of ownership during his short reign at Chelsea, letting the money fly like ICBMs and targeting some of the best names in soccer. The team bought French defender Claude Makelele from Real Madrid, Argentine defender Juan Sebastian Veron from hated rival Manchester United, Russian midfielder Alexei Smertin, and forward Damien Duff.

So far, Abramovich's mercenary red army has been an outstanding success. Chelsea is currently second in the EPL, one point behind league-leaders Manchester United, and a recent victory over the Red Devils proved Abramovich's club has a good shot to win its first championship in 55 years. He is also interested in buying the Vancouver Canucks and a Formula 1 racing team.

Yet while he is revered by soccer fans in London, Abramovich is one Roman who has few friends among his countrymen (at least those in the Kremlin). In Russia, he is considered by many (including President Putin, significantly) to be an oligarch who were given the reins to the country's vast resources and industries (which were ownerless in the nascent, post-Soviet Russia) for nothing more than their connections and political allegiance to the drunkard President Boris Yeltsin. Plus, some of the oligarchs, but not Abramovich, broadcasted anti-Putin news reports on their television stations.

The Russian President, a former KGB agent, has reacted by prosecuting the oligarchs involved with Russia's biggest oil company for tax evasion. In October, the government arrested Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the company's chairman as well as Russia's richest man (Abramovich is the second richest), a potential political opponent to Putin, and Abramovich's mentor and business partner. It is suggested that Abramovich may be next on Putin's hit list.

Abramovich's purchase of Chelsea and his recent unloading of his $5.2 billion stake in Russia's top aluminum company suggest that he is trying to avoid Khodorkovsky's fate by fleeing the country, and other oligarchs, facing the same threat, might try the same. It has already been rumored that another of the oligarchs might buy the severely cash-strapped Leeds club, which appears headed for relegation the First Division and is $200 million in the red (Abramovich erased Chelsea's $130 million in debts when he took over).

So Putin's prosecution of the oligarchs appears to be good news for English soccer fans.

SHOCKER (to some): MLS Averaging 15,000 for Playoffs

Though Major League Soccer's new playoff format--in which the top eight of the league's ten teams advanced from the regular season into two-game series decided by aggregate goals--continues to be the object of criticism by American soccer fans after the completion of its first round, the experiment has yielded some unassailable results both on the pitch and at the turnstiles.

Not only has the new format (which is widely used in the Champions League in Europe) produced a bevy of quality matches--most notably San Jose's 5-2 (5-4 aggregate) extra-time victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy last Sunday that is being widely hailed as the greatest game in the MLS' eight-year history--but it has seen very respectable attendence figures.

The average attendence for the eight first round matches was just below 15,000, a number that most NBA and NHL owners--as well as the bigwigs at many European football clubs--would envy on a given night during their regular seasons.

The high mark of 20,200 came in the Galaxy's first meeting with the Earthquakes two weeks ago at the brand spanking new Home Depot Center in Carson, CA, a soccer-only facility. The low of 10,200 was turned in by Metro Stars' fans, who have to trudge out to Jersey and Giants Stadium to see a match.

Of course, the NBA and the NHL can charge much higher ticket prices and sell tickets to many more games than can the MLS, so the comparison is somewhat flimsy. But the MLS, unlike its bigger, older competitors, can pay its players--who have no union and for the most part are just happy to have the chance to play soccer at a professional level--salaries so low that profligatem Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban can't even conceive of them.

So if anyone thought the folding of the WUSA portended dire times for American soccer in general, the current playoffs should cause them to think again. The MLS is becoming--or maybe already is--a solidly entertaining and financially sound sports league.

Postmortem on Women's World Cup

Let's hope any chance of resurrecting the WUSA didn't hinge on the success of the recent Women's World Cup.

The tournament, which was hugely successful in 1999 when the American women won the title, was poorly attended, poorly watched, and suffered from a shockingly poor performance by this year's U.S. squad.

The slightly favored Americans cruised into the semi-finals against Germany, who made them look like puny non-Tuetontonic girly girls in a 3-0 thrashing. That set up a championship match that was off the charts in its irrelevence to American sports audiences--Germany vs. Sweden, live on ABC opposite NFL football. Other than Colonel Klink, the only people who could have possibly watched that were guys who mistakenly thought they were tuning into som kind of competition with the Swedish Bikini Team, but even those guys might have have been scared away by the Munich Olympics-inspired spectres of a German Bikini
Team and bulges in all the wrong places.

It was truly a blow for any women's soccer fans who hope the sport can progress in scope and popularity. No longer can they espouse the success of the '99 WWC in an unqualified manner. And no longer can they rely on the marketability of soccer fox Mia Hamm, as she has retired from World Cup play. (Speaking of Hamm, who is engaged to Nomar Garciaparra, whose recent failure was worse: the U.S. women's or the Boston Red Sox's?)

Certainly, the Women's World Cup will enure and--without this year's troubles with the SARS scare and the resultant change of venue from China to the U.S.--should prosper once again. The same cannot be said for the WUSA.

Postscipt to the Postscript: I found this little nugget on Robert Wagman's column on Apparently the TV rights to the WWC were owned entirely by Phil Anschultz, one of the main investors in Major League Soccer, who then paid Disney for air time on ESPN and ABC. (The same arrangement was in place for the '02 World Cup, with MLS as the rights

So don't feel sorry for ABC about the ratings disaster of the WWC; rather, worry about the MLS who surely took a big windfall--something they can't really afford. Wagman writes that this may explain the timing of the WUSA's folding right before the WWC, as the WUSA was rebuffed in their efforts to secure a bailout from the MLS.

And speaking of the MLS and TV, why are the current MLS playoffs airing only on Fox Sports World? It's a great channel--an absolute godsend for any American soccer fan--but it isn't in very many households and the league has a TV deal with ESPN. The playoffs should be a showcase for the league and potential fans shouldn't have to go searching into the nether regions of their satellite menus to find them.

An EPL team in America? Moooooooooooooooooooooo

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' owner Malcolm Glazer, who is a dead ringer for the guy who hosts "Inside the Actor's Studio," increased his stake in Manchester United to 5.9 percent ($73 million at the moment) this week as News Corp.
chairman Rupert Murdoch sold of his interests in the team and in so doing became the third-largest shareholder of the most famous and highest valued sports franchise in the world. (The first- and second-largest, by the way,
aren't English either; they're Irish and Scottish, respectively.) The news comes after a month
chock full of rumors that the publicly-held Red Devils were being eyed by a number of international suitors with the capital to pull off a takeover of the club. Man U's stock has reached a two-year high of 200 pounds as a result.

There's no doubt that Glazer, whose family built its fortune in oil and is estimated to be worth $1 billion, wants to own another team. He tried to buy the
Los Angeles Dodgers, currently owned by News Corp., earlier this year but that attempt was reportedly scuttled by NFL regulations. It has been speculated
that Glazer will partner with United's largest shareholders, a couple of racehorse owners from Ireland, to take a controlling interest in the team.

The thought of an American owning the world's favorite soccer team caused me to ponder the chances of bringing an EPL team to the States. Certainly, Glazer would never yank United out of Manchester and set up shop in Tampa; by
all reports, he values his life. But I could see a first-division team, or perhaps an expansion team, coming to New York and doing quite well.

I don't think expansion, as it is known to Americans, exists in the Premier League since it adds new teams from its lower divisions on a yearly basis. So it might be more practical for an American to buy an existing and
struggling first division team that has very little fan support, bring it to New York, and spend loads of money on players so that in a year or two--after the team has
improved enough to make the Premier League--the likes of Man U, Arsenal, and Liverpool are playing once a year to packed houses at Giants Stadium.

Transportation might be a pain, but EPL teams usually play just once a week and if the team can charter a Concorde they'll get to England quicker than they can fly to Miami.
And while English fans might puke at the notion of an American team, the Premier League owners, eager to get
a piece of the American market, would love it and Murdoch, whose Sky TV televises EPL matches, could easily get the New York team's games on his Fox network.

It's just a thought, and a nice one for U.S. soccer fans.

-MLS commish Don Garber announced the league's plans to expand with new teams in Cleveland and either San Diego or Houston. The latter two seem logical, as both cities have large Latino communities, which have been an important
part of fan bases for MLS teams in San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. At first glance, Cleveland seems to have all the sports it can handle with the
reincarnated Browns, the Indians and their new field, and now the Cavs and LeBron. And Ohio--not a huge state--already has an MLS team, albeit one (the Columbus Crew) that has its own stadium and routinely fills it. So
Garber must be seeing a huge demand for soccer in Cleveland.

Soccer's Version of the Kobe Bryant Scandal

It's an ugly situation in England, where the Premier League could be facing a sex abuse scandal repulsive and wide-ranging enough to make the NBA thankful the Kobe Bryant trial is all it has on its hands.

A 17-year-old London girl is claiming to have been raped by up to seven EPL players on September 27th. The Catholic schoolgirl told the police that she had consensual sex with one player in a room at a five-star hotel before being raped by five other men and assaulted by two others. All of the alleged rapists are highly recognizable EPL
players, according to the Star, the London tabloid that broke the story and is famous for giving daily exposure to aspiring nude models.

None of the names of the suspects has been released by the police and speculation over their identities (at least one is believed to be a Chealsea player) has been rampant
among gossip gluttons in England. The country's notoriously rowdy and cruel soccer fans were threatening to identify the suspects with chants during last weekend's games, which sent lawsuit-leary Sky Sports, who broadcasts
the EPL, scrambling to formulate contingency plans in such an event. Newspapers and Web sites have also refused to publish the names of the suspects for fear of

But the media aren't as scared as the Premier League. The
chairman of a team that employs three of the suspects has threatened them with lifetime suspensions from the EPL if they refuse to provide DNA samples to the authorities.

The truth became even murkier over the weekend when, in a widely published report, a professional party organizer and friend of the players allegedly involved said the girl had sex with only four men that night--including him, plus
three players--and that all the acts were consensual. The man claims the girl falsified her story to the police because she was insulted to hear her four partners comparing notes over breakfast the following morning.

The girl has strongly denied the man's story.

We'll keep an eye on this one.

Nike vs. FIFA and an Inscrutable Bud Light AD

-For more on the pseudo-demise of the WUSA, first--for all I know, and care--suggested in this space last week, check out Mike Fish's piece on's soccer page. Oh, sweet vindication. Check back next week to find out where Jimmy Hoffa is buried, who killed JFK, and how that mongoloid Oliver Stone is still allowed to make movies.

-Those gentle souls of Nike Corp. sued FIFA this over the copyrights to "USA 2003," which Nike is using in its ads running during the current Women's World Cup. FIFA claims the phrase belongs to them just as "France 98" and "Japan/Korea 2002" have in the past. Nike, whose past court combatants have included a tiny jeweler in Michigan who unwittingly put a pair of counterfeited Nike earrings up for sale as well as a labor rights activist who took the behemoth all the way to the Supreme Court in a free speech case (Nike settled out of court), is trying to swat a pretty big fly in FIFA. The Switzerland-based body regularly gets nine figures in World Cup sponsorship deals from the world's biggest companies, like Coke and Anheiser-Busch. But Nike, the world's largest sports clothing and equipment manufacturer and unquestioned grand masters of marketing, has always stayed away--in an official sense, anyway--from the world's biggest sporting event, as well as the women's Cup (although it did get some nice exposure in 1999 when Brandi Chastain went Christina Aguilera on us and revealed the swoosh under her shirt). It will be interesting to how things play out in this court case between two giants who clearly don't need each other.

-As Raiders' QB Rich Gannon would say, maybe I'm just some "jake" soccer writer, but I find Bud Light's new Women's World Cup commercial with Julie Foudy and Aly Wagner in a court room to be as discerible as Arnold Schwarzenegger busting out a DMX flow. They could have had Fellini or Bergman direct it and it would have made more sense. I can't tell if the puctured and deflated soccer ball is supposed to indicate a coming feminist rebellion against that oh-so-great beer-swilling, fart-knocking patriarchy or simply an abandonement by Bud of the Whassup!, knee-to-the-crotch humor that is the envy of all booze commercials. Either way, I'm scared.

Chick Soccer Chicanery

Why the WUSA Folded When It Did
By Jack Ferdon

Fans of the Women's United Soccer Association as well as every sentient being on the planet, were left befuddled when the league announced its own demise. The cause of the head-scratching was not that the WUSA was going bye-bye, its breakup was even more in the bag than Affleck's and J-Lo's, but rather that the incredibly unpopular league chose to make the announcement five days before the start of the biggest event in their sport, the Women's World Cup. It was like a girl tying to score by telling all the guys at the bar she has the clap.

There is never a good time for news of this nature, and we are obviously saddened for not only the players and coaches, but the fans, administrators, and investors in the league as well. The league has been very positive for the sport across the United States, and we appreciate the hard work from everyone involved in providing the highest level of professional women's soccer in the world.

It is disappointing that the league could not find the additional funding and investors they needed to continue," said WUSA chairman John Hendricks, who probably tried to get his wife to sign a pre-nup during their honeymoon.

Here's Hendricks' explanation for the timing of the announcement: "We couldn't keep the doors open even another 24 hours without jeopardizing a decent and fair severance package for our employees." He also said the league, in order to continue operation, needed to find eight corporate sponsors willing to throw down $2.5 million each, but thus far had signed up only two (Hyundai and Johnson & Johnson).
And here's why you shouldn't believe Hendricks.

Now, no one will deny that the WUSA was broke. But so broke that their daily operations' in the off-season must consist of simply answering a few junk e-mails, couldn't trudge along for a few more weeks if only to avoid casting a pall over the World Cup? Doubtful.

What makes more sense is that Hendicks and his throttled fellow owners found a way to cut their substantial losses ($100 million was invested in the league) by folding when they did.

One possibility: Hendricks was shorting Hyundai and J & J, whose shareholders would surely dump them like chicken feed when it came out that they were willing to give a girls' soccer league two and a half million bucks. The SEC should look into this.

Another possibility: FIFA and others with a financial stake in the Women's World Cup paid Hendricks to close shop when he did to drum up some publicity for their show, which a week ago had less buzz surrounding it than the UPN's new fall lineup.

If true, this may have been a wise investment for FIFA as the WUSA's closing was deemed front-page news by papers across the country on Tuesday. Combine that with Mia Hamm's appearance this week on the cover of Sports Illustrated and suddenly there's a media blitz on women's soccer, all thanks to Hendricks' announcement Monday.

One more possibility: The announcement was a ploy to stir up sympathy and investors for the WUSA, like those big concerts they used to have for Willie Nelson every time the IRS was after him. The league's players' scared, as they should be, of having to get real jobs, are hoping for a rich savior to bail them out. "We are not just going to give up, even though the odds are stacked against us. We will still hold out the possibility of reviving this," said WUSA and US national team veteran Julie Foudy.

Outside of the WUSA's troubles, this has been a landmark year for women's sports with Annika Sorenstam competing on the PGA tour and the WNBA drawing a record crowd (22,000) to its recent championship in Detroit. Now women's soccer fans -- I think I'm safe using the plural there -- are hoping 2003 will be a miraculous one as well.

Cry for Argentine Football

Current league hiatus par for the course in troubled country
by Jack Ferdon

Argentina is well accustomed to fiascoes. Throughout its history--and especially in the past two years--the nation has witnessed tragic levels of incompetence in its government, its military, and its courts. (And don't forget disusting yayo-fiend Diego Maradona.) Now even the beautiful game--as it is organized and run in the country--offers little in the way of refuge to those Argentines looking for ninety minutes of escape from their troubles.
The Argentine Football Association recently suspended league play for two weeks. The suspension was a response to an August 31 match in Buenos Aires between Boca Juniors and Chacarita where violence in the stands caused the game to be stopped and left 71 people injured.

The hiatus is only the latest blow inflicted upon the Argentine soccer fan in a savage beating that predates even the country's massive economic calamities. It's enough to make fans yearn for not just the dashing, "Hand of God" Maradona of the '86 World Cup, but even the sniffling, waddling Maradona of ten years ago.

As far back as 2000, the country's teams were regularly missing payroll--leading to a number of player strikes--and had amassed $100 million in debt to the government. This left the insolvent league in no position to weather a storm when, in December of 2001, a veritable Nor'easter hit. After a four year economic slump, the Argentine government came perilously close to defaulting on its nearly $70 billion debt to private investors. Then-President De la Rosa cut salaries and hiked taxes in an effort to ward off such a catastrophe, but just started another when outraged citizens rioted in the streets of Buenos Aires. Argentina avoided default by securing more foreign loans from the IMF and such, but the cost was the adoption of more austerity measures including freezing bank accounts and depegging the peso from the dollar, causing billions in lost wealth. In the following year, unemployment reached nearly 30%.
The crisis left the AFA $200 million in the red and stuck with contracts that required it to pay coaches and players in dollars even after the peso had been floated (and sunk). But Argentines were determined to see soccer continue. Edouarde Duhalde, De la Rosa's replacement, stepped in in January of 2002 and cut ticket prices for league games in half, to about seven bucks and, to the relief of many, the games went on.

Said AFA boss Julio Grondona in a New York Times article, "Football must go ahead. It is the Viagra of the Argentines."

But in the summer of '02, Argentines--to extend (no pun intended) the preceding metaphor--got the all-time worst case of blue balls when their widely-favored national team failed to make it out of the first round at the World Cup with a disappointing loss to England (a rival in soccer and war for Argentina) and an unlucky tie with Sweden.
The national team has continued its struggles this year, as a recent 2-2 draw with Chile in '06 cup qualifying left most Argentines underwhelmed. The likes of Crespo, Zanetti, Ortega, and Aimar shrugged and returned to their rich clubs and rich contracts in England, Italy, and Spain. (Argentina can expect to see more of its talent skip town as Carlos Alberto Tevez and Clemente Rodriguez of Boca have caught the eye of European clubs and Boca's owners are, as always, in need of cash.)

And now soccer has come to a halt in the country. Argentina has always had trouble with barrabravos (hooligans) and violence at its soccer matches, but it has escalated recently as an increasing number are jobless and poor and more likely to commit crimes. Current president Nestor Kirchner plans to do something about it, saying, "It cannot be that a stadium is turned into a field of battle."

Will he succeed in saving soccer in Argentina? Let's put it this way: Argentina missed a $3 billion dollar payment to the IMF thus week, the biggest default in the loan's history.

Where have you gone, Diego Maradona?

Kiss of Impending Death

Warning: The following soccer business column has been constructed in a very loose and sloppy manner.

Children and anyone who has even the smallest desire for coherence in an essay are advised to exit this blog now.

-Speaking of loose and sloppy, did you see Madonna and Britney Spears get at each other at the MTV Awards? All I can say is, Thank God for hot, desperate girls who freak out when their sucky albums don't sell. Wonder if the publicity ploy will be mimicked by FIFA's marketing wizards responsible for staving off embarrassment giving some kind of juice to the upcoming Women's World Cup, which is the sports equivalent of a Madonna album.

-Speaking of embarrassments, notorious English midfielder Paul Gascoigne has signed to play for a team in the United Arab Emirates. Gascoigne, 37, was once considered the greatest soccer talent ever produced by England but is now better known for giving numerous interviews while drunk, getting face-down drunk the night before important matches, and trashing the hotel suite of the coach who left him off
England's '98 World Cup squad (probably drunk for that one, too). Sending Guzzler Gascoigne to Abu Dhabi is unlikely to endear the West to the Arab world. Get the duct tape ready.

-Speaking of terrorists, Saadi Gadafi, the son of Libyan dictator Moammar and a player for Perugia of Italy's Serie A, announced this week Libya's and Tunisis's joint bid for the 2010 World Cup, which FIFA has promised will be held--for the first time--in an African nation. Libya and Tunisia will compete with South Africa, Morocco, Nigeria, and Egypt for the Cup. South Africa, which is said to have earned enough votes to get the 2006 World Cup before the fat cats of FIFA stepped in and gave it to Germany, looks to be
the front-runner.

-Speaking of shady things, Real Madrid recently predicted 2004 profits to be $65 million. That such an announcement could never--and will never--be made by an American sports franchise is an indication of how powerless European athletes are (at least in comparison to U.S. athletes). George Steinbrenner would hand wash Joe Torre's jock before saying the Yankee's netted $65 million in a year, because the MLB players union would be striking the next day. Of
course, European soccer players are no charity cases, and certainly no Real Madrid's players (David Beckham earns upwards of $10 million), but they have nowhere near the security of, say, NBA players (to make room on the payroll for Beckham, Real sent 13 players packing). Things aren't so rosy, however, for the other teams in Spain's La Liga. FC Barcelona has a debt of $236 million and the entire league is $1.7 billion in the red and is seeking a government
bailout. Now that should sound familiar to Americans.

-Speaking of debt, tickets to the championship match of the Women's World Cup--to be held at the U.S. Soccer Fed's beautiful new Home Depot Center in SoCal--are priced at $400 or, in the calculus of the average sports fan, 20 lap dances. Hmm, the strip jointfor a week or 90 minutes of girls soccer--you're making it tough on us, FIFA.

The State of Soccer in the States

To the President of the United States:

Dear President Bush,

Are you like me, Mr. President? Are you sick of countries like France and Iraq and Un (where is that place anyway?) and the rest of them complaining about and American hegemony and American Idol (how can they not like that show?) and American arrogance?

Well, if you are, I've got just the policy to get those evil nonAmericans in line. It involves no bombs, no deviation from diplomatic protocol and no whining from those pansy Democrats. Plus, all it'll cost you is one of your daughters and a spot for me on Mount Rushmore. (Relax. I don't want my face carved up there-just my naked butt.)

Here it goes: Beat the world at its favorite game-soccer. There's no doubt that soccer is the Achilles' heel of the world's stubborn reluctance to accept American greatness. If the good ol' U.S.A. ever won the World Cup, we could shove all the crappy cars, mutant crops, and Hollywood schlock we can muster down the throats of every nation with them begging for more.

But unless the continents of Europe and South America suddenly disappear (don't get any ideas, Mr. President), America won't be winning the Cup anytime soon. Soccer just isn't popular enough to draw the country's top athletes-and TV watchers-away from the more blinging basketball and football.

The reason? Maybe a quick briefing on the current state (financially and otherwise) of the world's most popular game in America is in order.

The good news first. America's top soccer league, the MLS, is not in such a shambles as is its counterpart in Greece, where soccer is unquestionably number one. The top Greek league, home of Champions' League regulars Olympiakos and Panathianakos, has lost millions due to the folding of a cable network with whom it had inked a giant TV deal and a sharp decline in attendance provoked by a rash of fan violence.

But saying the MLS is better off than Greece's league isn't saying much. Sure, the MLS has a TV deal, but it's basically with ESPN2, which also broadcasts rodeo and the World Series of Poker (which is actually a really good show).

In the hierarchy of basic cable programming, MLS games are just ahead of Trading Spaces and Sanford and Son reruns. And, sure, you won't find any violence in the stands at an MLS game, but that's because all the violent drunks would rather spend their money at football games.

And don't forget that-according to all signs-Greece is about to botch the Olympics, the greatest money-maker of all sporting events.

So the MLS is in no position to brag. The league still trails behind those in Western Europe, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico in both the quality and popularity of its soccer.

Here the MLS finds itself in a conundrum. The sellout crowds that showed for recent exhibitions by Manchester United, AC Milan, and the like played in New York and Seattle prove that Americans will pay-at least once in a while-for soccer, but only at its highest level.

America is home to Russell and Jordan, Ruth and Bonds, Montana and Rice. And as a result American sports fans are used to watching athletes that are the very best at their games. Americans don't want an inferior sports product (yet they'll watch Hollywood Squares at the same time Vertigo is on) and that is, by any measure, what the MLS is.

But the only ways the MLS can improve its soccer require money, something unpopular sports leagues don't have. If the MLS had, say, LeBron money-or even Mark Madsen money-it could try to buy some mid-level stars from European or South American clubs.

Or it could use the cash to hold onto the best crop of young players (Donovan, Beasley, etc.) America has ever produced. Instead, the league has been forced to sell its native talent to Europe. The most recent example is goalie Tim Howard, whom the MLS sold to Man U and who has gone on to supplant French national Fabien Barthez as United's top netminder. Others are sure to follow.

There is a possibility that the exodus will help the MLS. Conventional soccer wisdom says having American players compete in the superior Euro leagues will improve their skills and pay dividends come World Cup time.

MLS should have got a boost in popularity from the States' outstanding performance in Japan and South Korea last summer, but all the games were broadcast in the wee hours of the morning, placing them beyond the purview of the casual sports fans so direly coveted by the MLS.

In '06, however, the World Cup is hosted by Germany, where the matches will be played at more accommodating hours for potential MLS viewers. Should the U.S. turn in another strong performance in the Deutscheland, the MLS will need to capitalize.

Oh, I forgot. There is another soccer league in the world that is doing worse than the Major League Soccer-WUSA. The Women's United Soccer Association recently concluded a season that no one cared about with a championship that no one watched and was won by a team that no one could name for a million bucks. The league is widely expected to fold within months.

If only the WUSA could somehow return us to those halcyon days of 1999, when the U.S. women's national won the World Cup and were named Sportsmen of the Year by Sports Illustrated and Brandi Chastain and her bra were household names-hey, wait a second.

Thanks to SARS, this year's women's World Cup will be held in America again. It seems the WUSA is getting one last chance at life, so Mia, Brandi, and the rest can't blow it.

They must do two things to attract fans to their league: win and remove articles of clothing, you know, Kournakovate thing a little bit. I don't think showing a sports bra will be enough this time around. (I mean that was back in 1999, a more innocent time when Britney Spears was still a B-cup.) These trying times require nothing less than bottomless celebrants. So get those thongs ready, girls, not to mention the Nair.

So as you can see, Mr. President, the state of soccer in America is not exactly strong. And unless Alan Iverson is currently teaching his son to juggle instead of dribble, it will be quite a while till our soccer fans can stand in unison after a championship match and chant, "USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!"

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