Is Soccer's Star On The Rise In U.S.? Sunday's Major League Soccer championship game matches the Columbus Crew and the New York Red Bulls. Is pro soccer finally gaining a foothold with U.S. sports fans? And how is the sports business dealing with a reeling economy?

Is Soccer's Star On The Rise In U.S.?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, if you are one of the few people who won't be crowding in to the theater to see 'Twilight' this weekend, you can at least catch major league soccer's championship game. It's on Sunday in Los Angeles. And sorry, there will be no David Beckham appearance as the Columbus Crew will play the New York Red Bulls. Joining us now to talk about soccer is sports writer Stephan 'the toe' Fatsis who joins us most Fridays. Hi, Stephan.

Mr. STEPHAN FATSIS (Sports Writer, Wall Street Journal): Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: The championship game will begin.

Mr. FATSIS: the 'instep.'

SIEGEL: The 'instep.' The championship game will be on ABC and also the Spanish language network TeleFutura. You think it's going to get much of an audience?

Mr. FATSIS: It's going up against the NFL but it will get an audience. Columbus was the best team in the regular season. New York is New York and it's the franchise's first appearance in an MLS championship. Now, major league soccer is 13 years old now. Soccer though which has faced so many hurdles here is really still in its infancy and this league continues to make progress both financially and competitively. We talked a lot about Beckham last year and his celebrity wife coming to L.A. to play. He hasn't made a huge impact on the sport but he's made enough of one on the field, in attendance and in the media. He was just on 'People' magazine's list of sexiest men alive, that it's making a difference. And I think that's the way MLS will continue to go - slow, broader growth.

SIEGEL: And they are actually taking steps that are apparently fairly shrewd in terms of developing their audiences.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, they are. They are trying to get all of their teams in modestly-sized soccer-only stadiums, about 20,000 seats. They've got seven of those now. More are under construction or in planning. The economy could prove to be a problem with that though. MLS is expanding, they're adding teams in Seattle next year, in Philly in 2010. They've got seven bidders for two more teams that would join in 2011. And earlier this week, a day after he was named the National League's MVP, St. Louis Cardinals' slugger, Albert Pujol's baseball, baseball, announced that he had joined the soccer ownership group in St. Louis.

SIEGEL: What about what actually happens on the field? Is major league soccer in the U.S. comparable to what's being played elsewhere in the world?

Mr. FATSIS: No, it's not. I mean, the top MLS team and Columbus was the best team this year. Could it compete in the English Premier League? No, but that's not where MLS is and it just can't be. They are judiciously adding a few expensive-ish international players, not all of them like Beckham, but marquee in different ethnic communities which is important. At some point though, they are going to have to start paying all of their players better across the board and that's what keeping the quality of the league down compared to Europe. Another measure of the league's health though, is its ability to send players to the top European leagues. We're still a feeder league. And here is the best example. MLS this year sold the contract of 19-year-old forward Jozy Altidore for $10 million to a top Spanish team. That is far more than they've ever received for a player. And a couple of weeks ago, Altidore scored the first goal ever by an American in La Liga, Spain's top league.

SIEGEL: The other young American we've talked about in the past is Freddy Adu and he made some history himself this week.

Mr. FATSIS: Yeah, Adu debuted in MLS at age 14. He is 19 now. He joined Benfica of Portugal last year, which loaned him this year to Monaco of the top French league. So, there's a lot of movement in Europe. This week, Adu scored his first goal for the United States Men's Senior National Team. It came in a two to nothing win over Guatemala in the final game of the semi-final round of regional qualifying for the 2010 World Cup. It's still a long way to go to 2010. Final qualifying round begins in February. No guarantee that youngsters like Adu and Altidore will be on the roster if the United States does manage to advance to South Africa.

SIEGEL: Stephan, talk a little bit about sports and the recession. The economy is slumping all over the world. NASCAR has laid off staff, The New York Times has folded its quarterly sports magazine 'Play.' This is a response to the economy. All the important questions for sports fans, how is ESPN doing?

Mr. FATSIS: Better than everybody else, I think. ESPN this week agreed to pay $500 million to show college football's BCS ballgames from 2011 to 2014. They took it away from Fox and this is the first time that a major sport will have its national championship shown on cable television, not on over-the-air television.

SIEGEL: Will they get to telecast the Obama bowl tournament that is going to be in place by that time?

Mr. FATSIS: You know, I bet, they won't. That's going to have to be on network TV because Obama is going to want everyone to see it.

SIEGEL: OK, thanks. Stephan Fatsis, who talks with us most Fridays about sports and the business of sports. Have a good weekend, Stephan.

Mr. FATSIS: Thanks, Robert.

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