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Gazette Premium Content Klee: With riveting World Cup, MLS tries to capitalize on soccer fever

photo - Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber says the league has a plan to become one of the world's top leagues by 2022. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) + caption
Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber says the league has a plan to become one of the world's top leagues by 2022. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
by PAUL KLEE The Gazette - Updated: July 3, 2014 at 7:04 pm

COMMERCE CITY - Too many headers leave a soccer player woozy. Or is there another way to explain this volley against logic?

"I'll never forget what Carlos Valderrama said to me," Colorado Rapids coach Pablo Mastroeni said on a recent afternoon in his office at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.

"It was in 1998. He told me, 'The MLS will be the best league in the world.'"

During a riveting World Cup, American soccer heads again are dreaming big.

In a sports nation that ranks the Big Four way ahead of Major League Soccer, that kind of declaration sounds like somebody had one too many corner kicks to the dome. A Colombian legend and the best head of hair to lace up a pair of boots, Valderrama made soccer look easy.

But did he make a mistake to suggest MLS one day will rival La Liga, Bundesliga or the mighty Premiership in soccer's hierarchy? The man in charge of raising the MLS to new levels doesn't think it's such a crazy proposition.

"I agree with that statement," MLS commissioner Don Garber told me in a phone conversation. "We have a plan to try to achieve the goal of being one of the world's top leagues by 2022."

Soccer has never been a bigger deal in the United States than it is right now. Interest exploded like red, white and blue fireworks each time the U.S. men's national team took the field in Brazil. On a random Tuesday, neighborhood sports bars became frat parties of business suits, Dempsey kits and awkward scarves in 90-degree weather.

With the Rapids hosting the Columbus Crew on Friday, the MLS has returned from its World Cup hiatus with a fresh place setting at the table of the American sports fan.

But can it hold the attention span of a sports nation that throws up a yellow card at the first sign of change?

TV ratings for MLS games are slightly better than reruns of "ALF." While the game has a grip on cities like Kansas City, Portland and Seattle ("The Sounders-Timbers game will have 67,000 fans," the commish says), markets like Denver lean on a devoted but small following.

"(Rapids president) Tim Hinchey was a great hire for Colorado," Garber said. "He's doing a great job connecting with the community through more engagement with youth clubs and the Hispanic community there."

How does the MLS gain footing in the conscience of the American sports fan? That's a one-on-one battle even Valderrama would struggle with.

"We realize there is no magic bullet. We encourage our teams that it's not about tomorrow; it's about the months and years after tomorrow," Garber said. "We're making progress. That progress has been a slow build, but it's certainly better."

The soccer iron is hot. Even so, Garber said MLS must grow at a gradual rate. His plan is a four-tier process:

-"We want to improve the quality of play with great international signings combined with homegrown talents," Garber said.

The trick with international signings, such as Brazilian icon Kaka, who signed last week with Orlando City, is not turning MLS into a retirement home for overseas stars who are past their prime.

"(David) Beckham was viewed as a stunt," Garber said. "It wasn't."

-"The second part is to build on this passionate fanbase that comes out of the millennials (roughly ages 18-33) and Hispanic communities," he said.

When I suggested the Rapids invite Peyton Manning to a Rapids game, Garber said: "How old is Peyton?"

He's a spry 38, Mr. Commish.

"I don't know if Peyton is or was a soccer fan," Garber said. "But Andrew Luck (who is 24) is in Brazil with the national team. He represents that movement that's going on with young people who grew up with our game."

-"The third step is to make our clubs more relevant in communities, trying to get that consistent connection that we have," Garber said.

-"Fourth, we must have economic rationality," he said.

What does that mean?

While the top clubs in Europe are a booming business, lower-tier teams often struggle to pay the bills, or the players. MLS seeks success from Seattle to Montreal.

The final financial point speaks to Valderrama's claim about paychecks in MLS.

"There are plenty of leagues in the world where you don't know if you'll get paid," Mastroeni said. "That's not an issue in the MLS. What's a bigger draw than knowing you'll get paid?"

In 16 years in the front office of the NFL, Garber witnessed the construction of a sports empire. The NFL is the most powerful league in American sports. MLS might be among the top 10 of the most powerful leagues in its own sport.

"Many times you deal with the skeptics that don't believe America will be a soccer nation," the commish said. "I think, for the most part, all those doubters have been silenced. There is absolutely no doubt this World Cup has shown our country is a soccer nation."

With the U.S. national team, where patriotism offers the ultimate draw? Definitely.

But can MLS become one of the top soccer leagues in the world?

That process needs extra time.

-

Twitter: @Klee_Gazette

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