Six years ago, when he was working in the international division of the NFL, Don Garber opened an office for the league in Mexico City. "It was good business for the NFL to do that," said Garber, who's now commissioner of Major League Soccer and who still keeps a wary eye on the country's No. 1 pro sports league.

The NFL went one step further this month when the Arizona Cardinals beat the San Francisco 49ers before 103,467 fans in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium -- the first time in the NFL's 86-year history a regular season game was played outside the United States.

"Arizona was willing to host the game, so we saw an opportunity," said Pete Abitante, the NFL's senior director of international public affairs. "But every time we go outside the U.S. for a game, we're always considered a second-tier sport behind soccer.

"We've had a long history of NFL football in Mexico City, starting in the mid-'60s, with lots of interest in the Cowboys, Steelers and Dolphins. We're looking to reach fans who grew up with soccer as their number one sport."

Such intentions and direct marketing to Latinos by the giant NFL might concern Garber, now in his sixth year as commissioner of the fledgling soccer league whose average attendance (14,955), TV ratings and sponsorships in its 10th year don't rate a blip on the NFL radar.

"We're a changing country," Garber said, discounting many traditionalists in the sports media who say soccer and MLS will never be a significant pro sport in the United States. "The people against us are older and not engaged in the game. Our focus remains expanding the dominance of soccer as the number one sport among Hispanics living in the U.S."

Garber, in a telephone interview Friday, said MLS attendance is about the same as last year, but boasts new soccer-only stadiums, including one planned for D.C., improved play and a slight increase in television ratings, especially among Univision and Telemundo viewers.

Of MLS's lengthy season that began in March and finally moves into playoffs Friday (D.C. United plays at Chicago), Garber said, "It is a long season, but it's the nature of the game."

Soap Operas

Two ongoing:

* The lease for the proposed baseball stadium along the Anacostia River scheduled to be completed by 2008 continues to be a political beach ball -- bouncing from D.C. Council members Vincent B. Orange (D-Ward 5) to chairman Linda W. ("did Josh Paul catch that ball or not?") Cropp (D) to city money-watcher Natwar M. Gandhi to Deutsche Bankers to doubting Wall Streeters.

Changes in the wording of the deal could reopen the agreement for mischievous anti-baseball council members. It also gives validity to Peter the Great and other Washington doubters who believed D.C. would never deliver a stadium. MLB's No. 2 man, Robert DuPuy, says a deal is a deal and messing with the agreement now could jeopardize the team's future here.

Nevertheless, Mark H. Tuohey, chairman of the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, remains convinced the posturing will cease, the lease will be signed in the next few weeks and MLB finally will sell the team. "It's in the best interests of everyone that the lease be signed and an owner be named so the team can move forward in the offseason," he said.

Such agony and frustration. Such nonsense. So Washington. So embarrassing.

* The other soap opera involves LaVar Arrington, who seemed to be the face of the Redskins when he signed an eight-year, $68 million contract last year after three straight Pro Bowls and now can't get on the field because his coaches believe he's not good enough.

LaVar, who does a regular segment for WTEM each week on the "John Thompson Show," said on the show he was "in the [Redskins'] doghouse and no one" has told him why. This assertion angered Coach Joe Gibbs, who said Wednesday he's talked to LaVar "more than any player" he'd ever coached.


How come LaVar, who is paid by WTEM, gets 30 minutes on WTEM to spout his take on the situation, without a response from the Redskins? "LaVar is usually followed by the Joe Gibbs Show on Mondays,'' explained Tod Castleberry, who is director of operations for WTEM. "But LaVar wasn't available Monday. He had to do his segment Tuesday."

Castleberry added WTEM did not seek "immediate response" to LaVar from the Redskins on Tuesday -- a mistake in my view, as is the practice of any media outlet paying coaches and players it covers.

College Park's Big Night

Ralph Friedgen has won some big games in his five years as the head football coach at Maryland, including last year's defeat of Florida State at Byrd Stadium. But no game looms larger than Thursday night's 7:30 contest against No. 3 Virginia Tech in College Park.

"Virginia Tech might be the best team we've played in the five years I've been the head coach here," said Friedgen, whose 4-2 Terps have reeled off three straight wins after home defeats to Clemson and West Virginia.

Friedgen credits much of his team's turnaround to 6-foot-5 junior quarterback Sam Hollenbach, whose improvement he calls "miraculous."

Frank Beamer's team includes a number of Washington area players, an exciting quarterback in Marcus Vick, swarming defense and great special teams. "It's what college football is all about," Friedgen said about the impending game, which I hope includes pregame instructions to the officiating crew from Feinstein.

Slap Shots

* If LaVar can't play defense for the Redskins, what about the Capitals (2-4)? These guys have given up 31 goals in their past five games and have no defense whatsoever. After drawing about 16,000 fans for their home opener against Columbus at MCI Center, the Capitals have averaged about 10,000 fans per game. "We are about 20 percent down in attendance from our top year in 2003," majority owner Ted Leonsis said. "When MLB returned after its strike it was down about 25 percent for that year. We have miles to go as a league and as a team. We have to regain the trust of our fan base and play hard."

I also might add some new defensemen. But it's his money, not mine.

* Red Auerbach, in the basketball Hall of Fame from his work as coach and president of the Boston Celtics, has left Sibley Memorial Hospital after a lengthy stay and is recovering from surgery at his apartment in Northwest Washington. Auerbach, 88, does not deny reports that he hopes to see the Celtics in Boston when the season begins next month.

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The Arizona Cardinals-San Francisco 49ers game drew more than 100,000 fans in Mexico City earlier this month as the NFL continues its push to attract an international audience.