The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Saturday, July 15, 1995                TAG: 9507150509
SECTION: SPORTS                   PAGE: C8   EDITION: FINAL 
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   84 lines


For generations, there have been larger-than-life heroes in America's big four sports.

Football in the '40s? Sammy Baugh.

Baseball in the '50s? Willie Mays.

Basketball in the '60s? Wilt Chamberlain.

Hockey in the '70s? Bobby Orr.

My answers may not match yours, which naturally opens the floor for barstool debate.

But if the debates rage 'til closing time and the barmaid is tallying the bill, here's the twister that will send notorious tightwads in search of their wallets: Who's the best American soccer player, any decade?

The big four have history.

Soccer is without in the U.S.

Critics regularly point to soccer's lack of scoring, meaningful statistics and action as reason why it's a minor participant on the American sports canvas. The game's late tee time in the cycle of American sports, however, is its most telling drawback.

Where Ken Burns made a nine-part documentary on the history of baseball, American soccer would be hard-pressed to provide nine minutes of meaningful footage.

Many believe pro soccer's history in North America begins with Alexi Lalas and Tony Meola in the 1994 World Cup. In a sense, that is correct. Its history is currently under construction.

Some of its major building blocks will be on display tonight when the U.S. Under-23 National Team meets the Trinidad and Tobago National Team at Old Dominion University at 7.

This is American soccer's future. But what does the future hold and what path must it take?

``I think it has to begin on the local level,'' said Under-23 midfielder Rob Smith, who plays collegiately for South Carolina. ``The television networks aren't going to sign on to it just because it's growing. We need to start small and in smaller stadiums. We need to build from there.''

Television, and how that medium is being abused by American soccer officials, had the Under-23 players almost to a man scratching their heads.

Rather than develop moderate television packages that open the game to the general public - be it ESPN2 or Home Team Sports - soccer has gone the way of pay-per-view on too many occasions, most notably with some of the games in the recently completed U.S. Cup.

``Nobody's going to pay to see something they basically know nothing about,'' said University of Virginia and Under-23 player Billy Walsh. ``You've got to put the game out there for people to see at a reasonable price.

``I think the tickets, when the MLS comes, are going to be pretty cheap.''

The MLS, as in Major League Soccer, was designed to ride the crest of interest created by the 1994 World Cup. It's coming next year, a year later than originally planned. Will it also be a dollar short?

``From everything I've heard, they are getting all the big names (from the 1994 U.S. World Cup Team) to play,'' Walsh said. ``And they say if it's not working (financially) at the start, they've got enough funds to sustain it for four years before it goes down. If the first year's a bomb, you just keep going until it starts working.''

This Under-23 National Team is expected to be the core unit for the United States in next year's Olympics in Atlanta. After that, some will look to the MLS as an avenue to the future, where history will be made.

Some will not.

``Soccer's a little different in that if you come out of college and want to play, maybe you'll make $30,000 a year,'' said Mike Fisher, a pre-med student at Virginia when not playing for the Under-23s. ``If you're lucky and play well for five or six years, you maybe get up to high five figures in salary. If you go to medical school and come out of your residency, you start making six figures after two years of private practice.

``Looking down the road, soccer doesn't have a real bright immediate future, although for a select few it does.''

Eddie Pope, a back for the Under-23s and North Carolina, took a page out of pro football's history in placing soccer in perspective.

``You think of all the old great football players who didn't get paid much and some were factory workers by day,'' Pope said. ``Soccer's the kind of sport you're going to have to love to play. You can't break the bank unless you go overseas.''

But history, at least the kind the majority of Americans recognize, happens at home. by CNB