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Originally published November 21, 2009 at 10:01 PM | Page modified November 22, 2009 at 1:13 AM

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Steve Kelley

MLS endures growing pains, but continues to improve

League will celebrate its growth Sunday night at Qwest Field, when L.A. Galaxy and Real Salt Lake play for MLS Cup.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Major League Soccer is a teenager now and, like every teenager, it is full of all the usual possibilities and anxieties. The league is a 14-year-old, still learning from its mistakes, still feeling every ache of its growing pains, still coping with its adolescence.

It is riding the high on the success of its first-year franchise, Sounders FC. It is preparing to expand into Philadelphia next season and Portland and Vancouver in 2011.

But it also is in the midst of difficult and sometimes contentious labor talks. It is troubled by poor attendance in places like Dallas and Colorado, which have built soccer-specific stadiums they haven't been able to fill. It is hampered by the second-rate inadequacies of some of its other stadiums.

MLS is a typical teen, slowly growing, slowly becoming more self-assured, slowly gaining acceptance.

"When I came into the league, it started out slow," said Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Nick Rimando, a 10-year veteran. "We didn't know exactly where the league was going. Now it's blossomed. Hopefully it's going to continue to grow."

Tonight in the cold of Qwest Field, in front of more than 40,000 people, the league will celebrate its growth when underdog Real Salt Lake plays the glittering L.A. Galaxy in the MLS Cup.

Some of the best and the brightest players in the league, from Galaxy superstars David Beckham and Landon Donovan to Real Salt Lake midfielder Kyle Beckerman and goal-scoring forward Robbie Findley, will be showcased.

This game is a tribute to the increased muscle-mass of this still-very-young league.

"The level of play has increased every year," said RSL coach Jason Kreis. "The teams have become deeper and deeper and deeper with every year. Expansion is hurting us a little bit in that department, but still, we've got a lot more players. When the league first started, I thought we had maybe 12 or 13 quality players, and then there was a pretty steep drop-off.

"I think the league has come a long, long way in every facet of what we're about. As far as off-field stuff, I think the league has just become much more professional in how we're training the players and where we're staying and how we're traveling and what we're eating. It's paying attention to all of the details. Everything has improved by leaps and bounds."

MLS is evolving. It has learned from the mistakes of its predecessor, the North American Soccer League, which grew too quickly and paid too much money to washed-out European stars like George Best and Gerd Muller.

Certainly, MLS hasn't ignored the international players. Even in its early years it was able to attract a certain amount of big-name international players like Carlos Valderrama, Lionel Alvarez and Marco Etcheverry. But the North American talent pool was much shallower then.

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"Now we have a David Beckham, who is arguably the most visible soccer player in the world, and that's fabulous," Beckham's Galaxy coach, Bruce Arena, said at training last week. "But the big difference in this league from Year 1 to Year 14 is the evolution and the growth of the American player.

"We have now some outstanding American players. The league has been a fabulous venue for these players to grow. It's the goal now to mix and match, as we move forward and bring in some more talented players from abroad to complement the American-based player."

That takes money.

"We need to spend more money on our players," Kreis said. "It's very difficult to go scouting in Argentina, or Brazil, or Europe or, really anywhere else, and compete for the level of players who are going to improve our teams.

"Right now we don't have the money to do that, so we're constantly looking for the diamonds in the rough. It would be nice to just go down there and say, 'We'll take that one. He's going to make our team better.' And have the money to spend."

In the league's infancy, Rimando worried about its long-term viability. He played for a franchise that folded and worried that if one team died the rest of the league might not survive.

"When I was in Miami, obviously, our team disbanded," he said. "When teams disappear, you have thoughts of what's going to become of the league. But then when you throw Toronto in there and see success there and obviously the Sounders, things look great."

The major similarity between Seattle and Toronto is that they sold the game. They didn't try to NBA-it-up with a lot of scoreboard histrionics and faux electronic cheerleading. These two newest franchises have become role models for the teenaged league.

"I've been very impressed with the setup here in Seattle," Beckham said. "As a matter of fact, I've thought that if I ever played somewhere else in the MLS, Seattle is one of the places I'd like to play."

Beckham's appreciation for the league has grown over time.

"I've really started to enjoy the MLS," said Beckham, who is finishing his third league season. "I've started to understand the league. There's a lot of good things in this league and there are also a lot of things that can change and need to change to improve.

"I know, in this country, a lot of players play at a young age and then don't any more after the age of 14 or 15. I think you need to educate the kids and make them realize that there is a great life and just a great experience they can get from playing soccer."

Slowly, this teenaged league is growing up and, even though there are problem teams and problematic times ahead, the game has found a permanent home in the United States.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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