As American Pro Soccer Forges Ahead, Its Past Deserves a Nod

By John Feinstein
Special to
Monday, April 21, 2008; 1:01 PM

I really want to like soccer again.

Every spring I make a vow that I'm going to make my way to RFK Stadium to watch D.C. United play. I stop channel-surfing and watch for several minutes at a time when I find a Major League Soccer game on television. I read Steven Goff, who has covered the sport so well for years now in The Washington Post, to get a sense both of the MLS and what's going on in the sport around the world.

I'm not saying all this as a set-up for some one-liner about all the 1-0 games or the fact that a World Cup final can be decided by a penalty-kick shootout (which is ludicrous). Essentially, there are two ways people look at soccer: Either as the most wondrous sport ever created or the most boring. The soccer-ites insist that those who don't get the beauty and artistry and athleticism of the game simply aren't paying enough attention. The anti-soccer-ites make fun of the lack of scoring and wonder what's so spectacular about 90 minutes of running and kicking.

Both are right. Both are wrong. Soccer can be thrilling. It can also be mind-numbingly dull -- sometimes in the same game. But I'm not here today to debate the merits of the sport; I'm wondering where it is and where it may be going in this country. We know it isn't going to go away. The question is whether it will ever be anything more than a niche sport that only draws widespread interest on the rare occasions that the U.S. team makes a run in the World Cup, as it did in 2002.

Let's go backwards first, because I do have some history here. In the late 1970s, as a fledgling reporter at The Post (I was 12 when I was first hired), I covered the Washington Diplomats and the old North American Soccer League. Back then the league's slogan was "Soccer, the sport of the '80s."

A number of teams in the league, most notably the New York Cosmos, spent serious money bringing in international stars to spice up their teams and attendance. The most important of those players was Pele. Some of us came to believe his full name was "The Immortal Pele," because he was referred to in print that way so often.

Pele was well beyond his prime when he got to New York, but it didn't matter. He gave the Cosmos and the league credibility. Others followed: Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer both played for the Cosmos. Johan Cruyff came first to Los Angeles and then to Washington. There were others.

Covering the league as a young reporter was an absolute joy. There's a saying in journalism about sources who go out of their way to cooperate with you: "He'll come to your house." I never had an NASL star come to my house, but Chinaglia did pick me up at my hotel once and drive me to his house. The mantra for almost everyone in the league was: we'll do anything to get people's attention.

The Cosmos became a phenomenon, selling out Giants Stadium frequently. When the Diplomats acquired Cruyff, their attendance spiked, most memorably when they sold out RFK one Sunday afternoon for a game against the Cosmos.

The two men who taught me the most about soccer were Cruyff and Gordon Bradley, who had coached Pele in New York before coming to Washington. You aren't likely to meet two men more different than Bradley and Cruyff. Bradley was sweet and kind and generous with his time, a remarkably patient man who never seemed to lose his temper, even when he was entitled to lose it.

Cruyff was almost always angry at someone. He was a mad genius -- on and off the field. Cruyff, even beyond his prime, could make plays that took your breath away. One of my fondest soccer memories dates to the night when my then-boss, George Solomon, came to watch the Diplomats play the Seattle Sounders. Solomon was giving me a hard time, telling me I had overrated Cruyff's importance to the team, and he (half-jokingly) said to me, "When are you going to have the guts to rip this guy?"

At the exact instant that he said the words, Cruyff stole the ball at midfield, darted past five Seattle defenders, faked out the goalie and scored what is still the greatest goal I have ever seen. I turned to Solomon and asked, "What was it you were saying?"

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