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Uniting a nation of fans

The belief that soccer can make it in America has been a popular refrain these days. It's a theory fueled by stadiums across the United States drawing record crowds to watch the world's best teams, in some cases playing against Major League Soccer teams. There is a measure of truth to the above statement, but its realization hinges on the sport's ability to unite a nation divided.

In one corner you have MLS fans who have spent the past 11 years investing in a league that is growing quickly and confidently. MLS fans in many cases regard themselves as this nation's true soccer fans. They take pride in supporting their city's, state's and country's MLS team and they consider soccer fans who don't support MLS to be holding soccer back in America.

In the other corner sits American fans who have chosen to follow European soccer despite the presence of an American league in their own country. In many cases, these fans, whom MLS fans affectionately call "Eurosnobs," began following leagues like the English Premier League, Serie A in Italy and La Liga in Spain before MLS ever opened up for business. In several other instances, young fans simply have been captivated by the star power and fast-paced action of Europe's top leagues.

These are not the only fans of soccer in this country of course, there is a large section of Latin Americans who continue to follow the leagues in their respective countries, but the MLS fans and Euro fans are the ones MLS are trying hard to unite in order to help the league truly realize its potential.

The question is whether this can be done. Euro fans follow leagues such as the EPL and La Liga for their high technical quality and star power. Many of those same fans complain about the lack of either in MLS. Fans of MLS counter that most Euro fans simply refuse to appreciate the quality the premiere American pro league already provides.

Is there truth to that statement? There certainly is. Far too many fans of the European pro leagues turn their noses down at MLS for not being as good as the EPL and the like, as if not being as good as the world's best leagues automatically makes MLS unmatchable. Are there ugly games in MLS? Of course there are, more this year than last year in fact, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of ugly and uninspired affairs in England and Germany.

MLS fans aren't without fault either. The constant clamor about the league's inferiority has developed a serious complex in some of MLS' diehard fans. The result is an overreaction to matches such as the MLS All-Stars' win against Chelsea or D.C. United's 1-1 tie with Real Madrid, as well as a distorted view of the league's technical quality and the ability of its players.

MLS fans also have been known to accuse Euro fans of holding back the sport in this country, as if the Euro enthusiasts' nationality should make them watch MLS. I will admit to even holding similar feelings before this summer, when I talked to countless Euro fans who told me their stories. Whether they were soccer fans who spent years watching English or German or Italian soccer before MLS arrived and never found a reason to switch over, or soccer fans who just happen to live in parts of the country where MLS has yet to reach, their stories were understandable.

Euro fans want what every soccer fan wants. They want to watch games that excite them and teams that entertain them. There is nothing wrong with being a Chelsea fan living in Chicago, or Liverpool fan living in New York. There is no law stating that you must go watch the Fire if you live in Chicago or the Red Bulls if you live in New York. It is up to the Fire and Red Bulls, and every team in MLS, to improve their product to the point that Euro fans want to come to the stadiums rather than supporting some foreign team via satelitte and Internet. As much as MLS has improved its product, it still has a long way to go.

What is wrong is writing off MLS without even giving it a thorough look. I have heard stories from readers who swore off MLS after one bad experience at an MLS match and some who have never made an effort beyond watching a few minutes of MLS on television. There are far too many of these fans in the United States and these are the fans MLS hopes to wake up with matches like D.C. United-Real Madrid and Barcelona-Red Bulls.

While matches such as those can bring eyes to watch MLS, only quality will keep those fans coming. There are a wealth of options available to soccer fans now. These include countless cable television channels that offer European and Latin American soccer games by the dozens as well as the Internet, which also allows Euro fans to follow their teams as closely as any MLS fan follows their team here. The only way to steal some of that time away from those fans is to provide them with a product that can match what they currently watch. MLS still is building toward being able to provide that quality alternative.

To the credit of MLS officials, they see the value that Euro fans bring to the American market and they have positioned themselves to assure that MLS benefits from those fans they have yet to convert into MLS supporters. Whether it is the league's ownership of the rights to broadcast future World Cups, or its growing relationships with European soccer giants such as Real Madrid and Chelsea, MLS has made it a priority to cross-promote itself in a way that forces Euro-fans to at least take a look at the MLS product.

Can MLS fans and Euro fans ever come together? They did just that this summer in Germany, where many from both groups made up the more than 15,000 American fans estimated to have traveled for the World Cup. They stood side-by-side and cheered on the U.S. national team, delivering one of the most impressive fan showings in American soccer history.

Ultimately, soccer fans just want to see great soccer. If given the choice between watching great soccer via satellite or watching it here at home and supporting a team they can follow up close and personal, most fans will choose their own homegrown product. As it builds stadiums, gains new sponsorship revenues and eventually establishes revenue streams that allow it to spend more money on player talent and marketing initiatives, MLS slowly but surely will begin to draw more Euro fans over to the MLS fans group.

It is a gradual process, but a process that is taking place as we speak. MLS fans can keep shouting about how good they already are, and Euro fans can keep saying MLS is an inferior product, but the day is coming when these sides will blend into one fan base supporting an American soccer league strong enough and good enough to survive and thrive in a country with so many other established sports. It might sound like a pipe dream, but it is the only way soccer will ever "work" in this country and it really isn't all that impossible.

Things that make you go hmmm

From the Embracing Mediocrity Department came news this week that Colorado has given head coach Fernando Clavijo a contract extension. Clavijo, who has continued to show an eye for talent despite an inability to win games consistently, had led the Rapids to a 21-20-10 mark before being given the extension. To his credit, Clavijo has helped sign a handful of quality players, has also guided the team to an impressive home mark of 15-5-8 and helped the Rapids reach the Western Conference final last season.

Does that all warrant a contract extension when your team sports a 6-15-2 mark on the road during your tenure? The Rapids seemed to think so. If anything, Clavijo probably deserved a raise considering he was the league's lowest-paid head coach, but to give him an extension makes you wonder what Colorado was thinking. The Rapids celebrated Clavijo's contract extension by getting pummeled, 4-1, by Real Salt Lake, to drop Clavijo to .500 as Colorado's coach.

If a .500 mark gets you a contract extension you have to wonder what Peter Nowak should get from D.C. United for what he's done with that team. An ownership stake perhaps?

Oh, and in case you were wondering how Clavijo's 21-21-10 mark stacks up to his predecessor, former Colorado coach Tim Hankinson. The Rapids were 21-21-18 in Hankinson's final two seasons with Colorado before he was fired.

Game Previews

What is it with all these ties? There have been 10 ties in the league's past 18 matches. Between that and the lack of goals this year, MLS isn't making a great case for Euro fans to ignore the start of the upcoming European soccer season.

There should be fewer ties on the horizon as teams begin getting desperate for wins as they jockey hard for playoff position. The East is a real dogfight, with Columbus looking like the only team incapable of mounting a playoff push. The West is getting interesting as Los Angeles and Real Salt Lake have closed the gap with Chivas USA to five points for the final playoff spot.

Chivas USA at Chicago

Based on Chivas USA's road record this year, an awful 1-5-5, you would figure that Chicago can cruise to a win at Toyota Park. Not so fast my friend. Chivas USA coach Bob Bradley surely will remind team scoring leader Ante Razov and midfielder Jesse Marsch about their unceremonious departures from the Windy City, which just might be enough motivation to knock off a Fire squad that is winless in its past four home matches (0-2-2). Razov strikes again and Chivas USA rolls.

Chivas USA 2, Fire 0.

Columbus Crew at Kansas City Wizards

The Lamar Hunt Derby has turned into the East Basement Derby. Brian Bliss continues to try and figure out why the talent-laden Wizards can't win. If Kansas City can't muster three points against a Crew team that hasn't won since June 3, then Bliss and company should just pack up for Philadelphia on Sunday.

Wizards 1, Crew 0.

FC Dallas at Houston Dynamo

The weekend's marquee match-up is hard to call. The Dynamo still are trying to figure out how it lost to the Galaxy while the Hoops know that a win here could all but assure them of the Western Conference regular season title. Look for Houston to rebound and knock off a rusty Dallas team.

Dynamo 2, FC Dallas 1

Wednesday, Aug. 16

D.C. United at Red Bulls

You would figure that D.C. could cruise past the Red Bulls but this will be Bruce Arena's first MLS match and you know he will have his new team ready to face his old team. The Red Bulls will have to settle for a tie because D.C. is just too good right now.

Red Bulls 1, D.C. United 1.

Real Salt Lake at Columbus Crew

Which RSL team will show up? Will it be the one that beat D.C. United and destroyed Colorado, or the one that lost to almost everybody else? We see a road win for John Ellinger's boys.

Real Salt Lake 2, Crew 1.

Kansas City Wizards at Chicago Fire

The Fire can't win at home and the Wizards can't win. That spells tie. Fire 2, Wizards 2

Last week: 2-3 Overall: 34-47

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.