There's a funky new look to the Major League Soccer standings this year, at least to the sport's uninitiated. FC Dallas? Chivas USA? Real Salt Lake? What's that all about? Is there a Fake Salt Lake somewhere?
But, to soccer fans, it's a warm familiar look another sign the adolescent league has stopped trying to Americanize the beautiful game and is more determined than ever to march in step with the rest of the world as it begins its 10th season Saturday.
''It's part of the strategy,'' commissioner Don Garber said. ''These are soccer teams. And if they're trying to look like the type of club the soccer fan is used to seeing, then more than likely those teams aren't called 'the Clash.' That could be the name of a lacrosse team. That could be the name of a rock band and was.''
For that matter, 'Burn' was a baffling moniker to some. Now, the name Dallas Burn has been put to rest, replaced this season by FC Dallas, a timely change as team prepares to move into a new soccer-specific stadium in August.
FC stands for Football Club, a common prefix or suffix used by storied clubs such as FC Barcelona (Spain), FC Porto (Portugal) and seemingly half the teams in the Netherlands. Fulham FC of England will be the international opponent for the MLS All-Star game on July 30 at Columbus.
Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake are this year's expansion teams, welcome additions for a league that had to shut down franchises in Miami and Tampa Bay in 2002. MLS still operates very much in the red, but it is a 12-team league again.
Chivas USA will help change the financial outlook by tapping further into the Mexican community in the United States. Chivas USA full name Club Deportivo Chivas USA is being launched as a sister club of CD Guadalajara, one of Mexico's most popular teams. Chivas, or Goats, is CD Guadalajara's nickname.
Chivas USA will play at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., sharing the facility with the Los Angeles Galaxy and giving two MLS teams to an area not represented in the NFL.
''Chivas USA is going to be from the start just like Chivas in Mexico,'' said Jorge Vergara, who owns both clubs, ''a team of excellence and an open door for Spanish speakers.''
That's the kind of talk Garber wants to hear. If Mexicans across the country flock to stadiums when Chivas USA is in town, the team's draw will be comparable to the impact made by 14-year-old Freddy Adu of D.C. United last season. United averaged 23,686 fans on the road last year, more than 6,000 better than any other team.
''There's a buzz happening in the Hispanic community about this team,'' Garber said, referring to Chivas. ''They could be the Freddy Factor of 2005.
''Not to get way too patriotic about it: These guys really believe in the United States. They really believe in the power of the Hispanic market, the value that the Mexican American consumer can provide all of us.''
As for Real Salt Lake, the first word is pronounced RAY-al and means royal in Spanish, as any fan of mega-popular Real Madrid would quickly attest.
The name has met with mixed results from fans who think it's a stretch for a startup team in Utah to associate itself with such a legendary club and from others who mispronounce it without a clue as to its origin. Others see it as a classy name, although one that will be hard to live up to.
''We're trying to have these teams look, feel, taste, smell like a soccer team, just like the same soccer team that exists in a local market in other countries,'' Garber said. ''Now that being said, you can't change the name and expect to have everything else work for you. You have to act that way, and we're working with our teams and had some success, though we need more success, in not just looking like a soccer team but behaving like one.''
MLS has been evolving its game toward the world standard since 2000, when the league ditched the dreaded sudden-death shootout and the backward-running clock two failed gimmicks that were supposed to attract the typical American sports fan and instead alienated soccer purists. MLS has since stopped trying to convert Joe NASCAR and concentrated more on nurturing its loyal supporters. Attendance has been steady in recent years; the average was 15,559 last season.
Meanwhile, the league continues to hinge its financial future on new, soccer-only stadiums that put teams in a position to break even and perhaps turn a profit. It's worked in Columbus and Los Angeles, and Dallas this year will unveil the 20,000-seat Frisco Soccer and Entertainment Center, host of this year's MLS Cup. Chicago will move into a new suburban stadium next year, and Colorado expects to do the same in 2007.
On the field, MLS remains a balanced league with a quality of play that gradually increases each year. The big question heading into the opening weekend was whether Landon Donovan would return from Germany's Bayer Leverkusen and join the Los Angeles Galaxy, who would send Carlos Ruiz to Dallas. Donovan said he won't decide until Thursday at the earliest. On Tuesday, Bayer Leverkusen said Donovan will rejoin MLS after 2 1/2 years in Germany.
First-year coach Peter Nowak led D.C. United from the basement to the MLS Cup title last season, and no one has won consecutive titles since United in 1996 and 1997, the league's first two years.
''I'm not going to back off an inch,'' Nowak said. ''If you talk to these players last year, they were all tired of losing. And I think the whole point is they don't need to get tired of winning. Last year was last year, everything was great. But it means nothing to say we're going to do the same thing we did last year without working the same way.''
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