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Sunday, October 30, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Commentary -- Rothenberg Goofs Chance For New Pro Soccer League

New York Daily News

UNION, N.J. - The sad truth was not something the eager walk-ons at Kean College wanted to hear last weekend.

Who would break it to them? The moment that Roberto Baggio missed a penalty shot in July, big-time soccer stopped dead in America.

All the fears, all the charges, have proved correct. Organizers split $50 million in profits from the World Cup, giving $7 million to leader Alan Rothenberg as a bonus for revenues rendered.

That was it. A legacy of megabucks.

The next pro league, Major League Soccer, is still nowhere in sight. Top American players like John Harkes and Alexi Lalas have scattered.

The money that could have kept them here, plus maybe brought a handful of receptive foreign stars like Juergen Klinsmann of Germany to the MLS, is not finding its way into the right hands.

It is a worst-case scenario, a scandal of mixed-up priorities: Rothenberg, obsessed for too many years with a successful and profitable World Cup, has botched America's big chance at a new league.

Rothenberg could not get himself to look beyond Baggio. Now, he has lost all the momentum.

The disorganized MLS, still scheduled to begin in the spring, has few investors or stadiums. New franchises like those in New York and New Jersey really have no homes, no fields.

Which brings us back to last weekend, to the grassy knolls at Kean College where the scattershot MLS was finally (about six months too late) trying to find some players to fill its non-existent rosters.

Nearly 300 hopefuls answered the tryout call. They were playing out their hearts and lungs, nine-a-side, for a handful of coaches.

If for only a day, it was a feast of feet and linguistics.

"C'mon, Sanchez, I'm wide open all the time!" screamed one player, who then tried the same phrase in Spanish and still could not coax the square pass.

"I figured I would see what was going on," said applicant George Sivulka, who played for Manhattan College in 1990. Like most people, Sivulka discovered long ago that soccer is more fun than work.

"At least I can say I gave it a try," Sivulka said.

That is more than Rothenberg and the U.S. Soccer Federation can claim. Their league should have started in the fall. It should have stolen some publicity from striking baseball and locked-out hockey.

Instead, there are nothing but vague plans and promises.

The 300 players at Kean would be whittled down to about 35 in another day. Then, the very best would join a nationwide pool of about 300 players across America, who would be placed onto teams according to position and need by administrators.

It is a confusing, centralized system, and several players were still debating its workings while they waited their chance along the sidelines.

"If we make it, do we play with New Jersey?" somebody asked.

The correct answer was, "not necessarily," but nobody knew for certain.

The general level of play at Kean was surprisingly high, an indication of how many great athletes are now playing this sport in America. Sivulka, a big man with finesse, dominated midfield as his team wore down its opponents.

Still, after the World Cup, after Baggio and Romario, American fans might demand more than Sivulka. Without recognizable names, without the bicycle kicks, the MLS will not feel much like a major league.

"You won't find Pele here," said Nick Zlatar, a coach with the national-team staff who was scouting at Kean. "If Pele was out there, we would have heard about him already, just like you'd hear about a Magic or Jordan in basketball. We're just looking for a little flair."

Zlatar was busy grading his new recruits, running them out in teams that might be competitive.

Zlatar was saying that the bad fate met in the Eighties by the North American Soccer League should not impact on the MLS.

"We just have to do things better," he said.

The MLS has several things going for it that the NASL never had. It has the other sports committing hara-kiri. It has deeper, broader youth participation. Most of all, it has World Cup USA.

Now, just over three months after Baggio missed his big shot against Brazil, there is nothing but a giant soccer void and 300 players at Kean College giving it their all.

The World Cup will come back to America, probably in 20 years - after France, then possibly Japan, Brazil, and another European country. FIFA will remember the profits from 1994.

But unless something happens soon - something bigger than Kean College - the dollars will be all there is to remember.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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