In the last decade, soccer has found nurturing homes in friendly places such as Washington and Foxboro, Mass., Chicago and Southern California. It has been welcomed to previously unexplored lands in Birmingham, Columbus, Ohio, and Portland, Ore.
But its most ambitious -- and, some say, perhaps foolish -- undertaking gets started tonight at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, site of the CONCACAF Champions Cup. Eight teams, including D.C. United, from five countries will vie for the North American professional title and an automatic berth in the inaugural world club championships early next year in Brazil.
United, which won the Champions Cup last year at RFK Stadium, plays a quarterfinal game Wednesday night against Central American champion Olimpia of Honduras. Major League Soccer's other representative, the Chicago Fire, opens tonight against the wonderfully named Joe Public of Trinidad and Tobago.
The question is, will anyone be there watching?
There is "some concern" about slow ticket sales, said Chuck Blazer, general secretary of CONCACAF, soccer's organizing body for North and Central America and the Caribbean. But "this market needs to be nurtured along and it's going to take time to do it. It will build."
Ticket sale figures were not available, but organizers aren't expecting more than a few thousand the first two nights at the recently renovated 40,000-seat stadium. United players were to be ferried between local television studios last night in an attempt to drum up last-minute support.
The city's scant soccer history consists of one summer of the Las Vegas Quicksilver in the North American Soccer League 22 years ago and occasional NCAA tournament appearances by the Nevada-Las Vegas men's program.
Blazer gave three reasons for the decision to play in Las Vegas: a neutral venue; a modern, available facility; and promising demographics that show an area with a large Latin American community.
"It's a fresh market," he said. "It has a lot of promise."
Blazer said that CONCACAF is planning to hold the Champions Cup in Las Vegas for three years. In the future, however, the tournament likely will take place during the winter.
FIFA, soccer's world governing body, liked the idea of playing there. Its executive committee, headed by FIFA President Joseph "Sepp" Blatter, will conduct meetings at the MGM Grand hotel Friday and Saturday, and is scheduled to address issues concerning the 2002 and 2006 World Cups.
The teams aren't thrilled about the desert heat or the narrow field, home to UNLV football, which is 65 yards wide -- about seven less than international soccer standards.
"It should be hosted by a team that's in it, which guarantees at least a few good crowds," United Coach Thomas Rongen said. "I don't know how many Mexican high-rollers there are, if that's what they're counting on [to fly in and see Mexican powers Toluca and Necaxa play]. Maybe I'll be pleasantly surprised. Also, it isn't a soccer facility; it's a football facility."
Nonetheless, the teams will try to set aside their complaints and concentrate on an event with lucrative prizes. The winner's share is only $75,000 of the $300,000 purse, but winning the title means an automatic berth in the world championships, an appearance that guarantees about $1.5 million -- a staggering figure for clubs outside of Europe and South America. It also means facing storied clubs such as Manchester United and Real Madrid in front of a global television audience.
Asked if he and his teammates have been thinking about the Champions Cup for very long, United goalie Tom Presthus said: "We've been thinking about it all year. We set a precedent by winning it last year, but the importance is so much greater this year. We've all watched the European [competitions]. We know what we would be up against. . . . But until we actually get there and play them, we won't know for sure. We want that experience."
United Note: Defender Carlos Llamosa, who sat out Saturday's MLS game with a groin injury, is expected to play against Olimpia.
CONCACAF CHAMPIONS CUP
At Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas
Chicago Fire vs. Joe Public (Trinidad & Tobago), 9
Toluca (Mexico) vs. Alajuela (Costa Rica), 11
D.C. United vs. Olimpia (Honduras), 9
Necaxa (Mexico) vs. Saprissa (Costa Rica), 11
Tuesday's winners, 9
Wednesday's winners, 11
Third-place game, 5
Championship game, 7
TV: All games on Fox Sports World (available on District Cablevision digital service and to DirecTV subscribers; for more information, see www.soccertv.com).