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Dave LeGarde: Though not perfect, U.S. soccer holds its own

For years soccer has struggled to find its niche in our country. I remember some 30 years ago when the North American Soccer League was established. The hope was to find a place among the major sports.

For years soccer has struggled to find its niche in our country. I remember some 30 years ago when the North American Soccer League was established. The hope was to find a place among the major sports.

For awhile, the plan flourished. Big money was invested to attract some of the greatest players in the world. International stars such as Pele, Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer signed with the New York Cosmos, giving the league instant credibility.

Minnesota also had a team, with the Kicks briefly attracting raucous crowds to a party-like atmosphere at the old Metropolitan Stadium. The team also achieved success on the field, though never captured a championship.

In hindsight, the league may have reached standards it could not maintain. Too many cities were awarded franchises, resulting in the talent being spread thin. Salaries paid to foreign players were beyond reason, making turning a profit difficult.

Most games were played in oversized NFL stadiums, which when half-filled made for bad public relations. Eventually the glamour and novelty wore off, and the entire operation was abandoned after just a few years.

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Major League Soccer, the current professional league in the United States, has experienced numerous ups and downs in its 14 years. Though it's lasted longer than its predecessor, how long it will survive is still in question.

In keeping costs at reasonable levels, MLS is doing the right thing. Despite the enormous sum paid to the iconic David Beckham by Los Angeles, contracts have been kept at a modest level. Tickets are affordable and available.

Some franchises have built mid-sized venues designed specifically for soccer, providing a smaller setting with fans close to the action. Those teams still playing in football stadiums have cordoned off seats too far from the field, making for a more intimate experience.

There is concern on which direction the league is headed. While cities like Seattle, Toronto, Houston and Los Angeles draw well, others such as New York and Dallas have seen a drop in attendance.

Though progress is sometimes a bit slow, American soccer continues to gain respect at the global level. Though not on the same plane as some of the world's best, the U.S. National team recently showed it could be a threat at next year's World Cup.

A surprising runner-up finish at the recent Confederations Cup revitalized a squad that's struggled for the past three years. A hard-fought semi-final win over powerful Spain provided a much-needed lift.

The final match against Brazil was a heartbreaker, as a seemingly insurmountable 2-0 halftime advantage disappeared under the attack of some of the planet's most skilled players. The 3-2 loss was incredibly deflating, but also should put in proper context.

To play so well in consecutive matches against traditional powerhouses has to be very encouraging, particularly with the sport's ultimate tournament just a year away.

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Though it may never get to the level of baseball, basketball or football in our country, soccer does have its place. It's hard to find boys and girls at any age who haven't given the sport a try. Equipment is simple and cheap; with shoes, shin guards and a ball the only necessities.

It's also an easy game to practice on your own, with just a few feet of open space necessary to work on individual skills. It's impressive to witness the coordination of those who take the time to get better.

I really admire the fitness level needed to participate. The constant running, cutting and maneuvering the ball in traffic all require a great deal of effort. Only hustle from every position will allow a team to be successful.

Having coached several soccer players on the basketball court, many have advanced endurance and athleticism over other participants.

It may not have the high-scoring action and physical play of other sports, but it certainly is an effective activity for young people.

E-mail dlegarde@charter.net .

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