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Fewer, deeper teams in MLS

Major League Soccer players, coaches and officials have spent the last two months trying to convince themselves that subtraction is positive.

They'll start to learn if that's true today, when the leaner league starts its seventh season. There will be 10 teams instead of 12 after the elimination of teams in Tampa Bay and Miami.

"They say that was going to make the league stronger," D.C. United midfielder Richie Williams said. "And the purpose of that was to not lose as much money and then add more teams in the future that have a better situation.

"We hope that that's the truth behind it all, and that's what they're trying to do. The next two years are crucial."

From a competitive standpoint, at least, 10 is better than 12. The players from the Mutiny and Fusion were dispersed throughout the league, making every team stronger.

"We've never had a team this deep at every position," said goalkeeper Tim Howard of New York/New Jersey, which added Miami forward Diego Serna.

New England picked up league MVP Alex Pineda Chacon, All-Stars Mamadou Diallo and Carlos Llamosa, and Steve Ralston, the league's career leader in minutes played. Kansas City welcomes back Preki Radosavljevic, who helped the Wizards win the 2000 MLS Cup before going to Miami.

To keep up, champion San Jose swapped forwards with the Burn: Ronald Cerritos went to Dallas for Ariel Graziani.

"You can't leave it status quo and think you're going to be okay," Earthquakes defender Jeff Agoos said.

But talk about tactics, trades and titles has taken a back seat to discussions about the league's viability.

"One of our owners just put $100-million into bricks and mortar," commissioner Don Garber said. "We have a five-year commitment to the league on TV. It is inconceivable to think that we aren't here for the long haul."

The league is putting its faith into two fronts: soccer-specific stadiums and television ratings. It's no coincidence that Columbus, the only franchise with its own stadium, was also the only team to turn a profit last year.

The Los Angeles Galaxy broke ground last month for a new stadium. But a plan to build a suburban stadium for the Burn fell through last week and Chicago is playing in a small suburban football stadium this year because Soldier Field is being renovated.

But the really big money in American sports comes from television, and the league gets relatively little.

The league also needs new investors. It no longer operates any teams directly but still relies on three deep-pocketed investors _ Philip Anschutz, Lamar Hunt and Bob Kraft _ to stay afloat.

Anschutz is now an investor in six teams, with San Jose his latest acquisition. For the league's sake he had better not lose his passion for the sport.

"If he wakes up tomorrow and pulls out, it's over," Williams said.

NATIONAL TEAM: The U.S. team will gather May 1 in Cary, N.C., for its final training camp before leaving for the World Cup. After the 10-day camp, the United States has exhibitions against Uruguay May 12 in Washington; against Jamaica May 16 in East Rutherford, N.J.; and against the Netherlands May 19 in Foxboro, Mass.

EUROPEAN CUPS: Eight-time winner Real Madrid faces defending champion Bayern Munich in the Champions Cup quarterfinals in April. The other pairings are Panathinaikos vs. Barcelona, Deportivo de La Coruna vs. Manchester United, and Liverpool vs. Bayer Leverkusen. Roma was banned from playing its next match in European competition in its Olimpico Stadium because of a brawl after a match this month against Galatasaray.

FIFA ELECTIONS: UEFA president Lennart Johansson said he will support African Football Confederation president Issa Hayatou in his challenge against Sepp Blatter for the presidency of the sport's world governing body. The election is May 29.

Up next:GOING LONG

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