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Rothenberg hints at year delay in start of Major League Soccer

The start of Major League Soccer, perhaps the best, last hope for professional outdoor soccer in this country, may be delayed a year, until April 1996.

"Obviously, the later in the game it gets, the more you have to analyze whether to start in '95 or '96," Alan Rothenberg, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation and head of MLS, said Tuesday in New York. "Sure, it's (a postponement) a possibility; everything is possible."

Tampa Bay is one of a handful of communities that has been waiting for months to learn if it will be awarded a franchise.

"I'd rather it be done right than to rush into it," said Farrukh Quraishi, a former member of the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Orlando's World Cup venue executive director. He's been asked to run a local tryout camp next month and would be a likely choice as general manager of a team here.

"It's real important to the future of the game that the professional league is successful and if delaying one year will do that, that's what needs to be done," he said.

MLS would own and operate all the teams, but that single-entity concept has made it difficult to find investors.

And finding enough investors has probably affected the number of franchises. Although MLS officials won't confirm it, the number is reportedly going to be 10 _ and maybe only five of the original seven. Hofstra, N.Y., has a short-term stadium problem and Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., isn't going to convert its artificial surface to natural grass. Officials are scrambling to find an alternate site in the New York area.

That leaves Boston, Los Angeles, Washington, San Jose, Columbus, Ohio. Tampa Bay, Chicago, Kansas City and Indianapolis appear to be the front-runners for the remaining spots in the league when _ or if _ it becomes a reality.

"I hope within the next 10 days to two weeks, we will be able to make our announcement," Rothenberg said, adding that he was "circulating legal documents for signatures."

If outdoor soccer doesn't come here in 1995, it looks as though indoor professional soccer may.

The National Professional Soccer League awarded an expansion franchise to Bill Collins, owner of FirstPAGE, USA, and the leader of a Virginia group seeking a Major League Baseball expansion team. He still must decide whether to place the soccer franchise in Norfolk, Va., or in St. Petersburg.

"All indications are they would like to be here," said Jeff Chelesvig, the general manager of the Bayfront Center. "We have a deal with them, in principle, but it's not signed. It's kind of in their court."

The Bayfront Center seats about 6,000 for indoor soccer. The team, wherever it will be, begins play next October and has 20 regular-season games. The NPSL has been around for 11 years.

Chelesvig said he, Collins and team president Ken Cooper have not discussed the possibility of a NPSL team playing in St. Petersburg from October through April and an MLS team playing in Tampa Stadium from April through October.

"It's not an issue with us," he said.

Mike Connell, another former Rowdie who has helped spearhead the Tampa Bay effort to land a MLS team, agreed.

"We (the Rowdies) had two different sets of fans and the crossover was very small," he said. "I think we'd be good for one another because soccer would be kept visible (year-round)."

Note: Rothenberg said U.S. national team coach Bora Milutinovic is on the verge of signing a four-year contract extension through December 1998.

_ Information from Times wires was used in this report.