Another attempt to conquer football's final frontier


IT HAPPENED maybe 18 years ago but for Ricardo Parra, present that day to watch the Washington Diplomats in RFK stadium, it is like a film clip in his mind.

"Over there, out in the far right corner, Johan Cruyff was boxed in by three defenders. Then he dropped his shoulder, feinted one way, unbalanced them and flicked the ball over them and broke free. Fantastic, I'll never forget it."

Fast forward to a cool, cloudy Saturday afternoon in the late March of 1996. The Colombian born Parra, 25 years a resident of the US, is back in RFK, only this time with his wife and two sons.

The Diplomats are long gone, vanished in the collapse more than a decade ago of the North American Soccer League, the last time that what the rest of the world calls football vainly attempted to conquer the sport's last frontier.

But once again, a heady pioneering feel is in the air. This is "Meet The Players Day" for Washington's new team, DC United, local member of the NASL's reincarnation, Major League soccer, and maybe 800 fans have turned up to do precisely that.

There was alas no modern Cruyff among the 15 players signing photos, team logos and footballs, chatting to supporters crawling past the tables where they sat.

But some pretty decent footballers were on show like John Harkes, midfielder for the US national team and the first American to play in the English FA Cup Final, the Bolivian striker Marco Etcheverry, who was voted second best South American player in 1993 behind Carlos Valderrama of Colombia, and Etcheverry's compatriot and fellow international Juan Berthy Suarez.

The occasion was weird, a tiny corner of razzmatazz in a cavernous, otherwise completely empty stadium that can hold 56,000., More than half the devotees were Hispanic, and when the players were presented, running out one by one from the dugouts like baseball players at the All Star game, the introductions were made in both English and Spanish.

The biggest cheer went to Etcheverry, an idol for the 80,000 Bolivians who live in the metropolitan Washington area and who was met in person at the airport by the Bolivian ambassador when he flew in on February 26th. But more than hero worship was responsible for the celebrations.

This time there was hope almost tangible hope that what in these parts is called soccer is at last poised to take off, for good. To understand why, look no further than the Parra family.

Back in the late Seventies, he was a foreign immigrant. Now he is back with an American wife Jane, a keen fan, and more, important two sons 15 and 11 who not only have inherited their father's love of the game, but who play it at school and local leagues, week in week out.

The Parras are big time investors in DC United no less than eight season tickets for the 16 home games on the schedule, all £12 "premium" seats above the half way line.

"We'll get the family down from New Jersey," explains Ricardo. Jane to was sure the investment will pay off. "Lots of kids are playing the game, in the city and in the suburbs too, starting from kindergarten. Gradually soccer will become part of their lives, part of the culture."

The optimism is shared by Bill Bradley, DC United's deputy manager, who also coaches the US Under 23 team for the Atlanta Olympics. "There's a huge difference now," he explains. "The NASL had no domestic base, of children and others who had grown up with the game. Obviously we can't expect to start at the level of the English Premier League. But this time MSL has made all the right moves. Give it five years and the roots will be down."

And so preparations gather speed for football's opening day this Saturday when DC United takes on the San Jose Clash in California, and for the home kick off at RFK on April 20th against the Los Angeles Galaxy. There are special ticket packages ads around town showing the team's logo of a black eagle on a red background with the words, "DC United, The Tradition Begins" even a special fan club the Screaming Eagles 113th Brigade.

Confined to section 113, this will a very pale North American equivalent of the North Bank, the Kop or the Fedelissimi of Juventus or AC Milan. "A constant source of songs, cheers and encouragement," says the Screaming Eagles first new sheet with a naivete endearing to hooligan ravished European ears, promising such all American delights to members as pre match tingle parties.

But even DC United, arguably the strongest of the 10 MSL teams and with a natural fan catchment of Hispanics and other football reared foreigners working in the US capital, is hardly a marketing man's dream. Despite the heroics of the Parras, only 4,000 season tickets have been sold, and average crowds are expected to be only between 10,000 and 15,000 a game, leaving forbidding expanses of empty seats.

"We tried to find 30,000 to 35,000 seater stadiums," explains Beau Wright, the team's PR chief "But the only ones around are college arena in middle sized towns that aren't large enough TV markets." And television, of course, is crucial. Buoyed by the commercial success of the 1994 World Cup here, the ESPN cable channel is showing 38 live games during the season, including DC's opener.

But as NASL found, TV is a fickle god. True, shoot outs will see there are no draws, presumed anathema to US sports fans. Each team, however, is limited to £50,000 sterling in total salaries, hardly enough to lure the very best. Even Etcheverry's reported, wage of £130,000 is small beer by the top European standards.

Nothing though could spoil the fun last Saturday at RFK. "I'm dying to come back," says Harkes, who flew back from London last week after six years with Sheffield Wednesday, Derby County and West Ham. "I'm not fully fit right now, but I'll be ready, for April 6th I can't wait.