Jan 12, 2009

Sport - Football;MLS opens up for Indian players

Marcus Mergulhao

PANAJI: This is a frontier story with a twist. It is the United States that is now pushing for expansion; in the Indian football context, of course.

Major League Soccer (MLS) has expressed interest in recruiting a clutch of Indian footballers and the country's stars are showing more than just a passing interest.

Two of Indian football's biggest stars — Sunil Chhetri and Steven Dias — were last night handed contracts by US-based FIFA registered agent Eddie Rock and told to sign up at the earliest.

There are a host of players from Kolkata and Goa too who are on the MLS radar. While Chhetri is understood to have sought more time as he remains keen to ply his trade in Europe for a start, Steven, Mahindra United's livewire on the right side of midfield, has already signed on the dotted line.

"I signed up last night," Steven told TOI before leaving for Hong Kong where India is scheduled to play a friendly on Wednesday.

"The agent will now initiate talks with my club and, hopefully, it will pave the way for me to play in the United States. I am excited about the possibilities," said Steven, who, earlier this season upset the Mumbai club by refusing to honour his three-year contract.

Steven could end up at the Washington-based DC United. In its 13-year history, DC United has earned more domestic and international honours than any other American side. LA Galaxy, made famous by a certain David Beckham, also remains a possibility. The MLS evolved from the North Amercian Soccer League (NASL) which three decades ago drew the likes of Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Gerd Muller — world stars going dim with age but bright enough to illuminate the fledgling soccer stage in the US.

So much so that it earned the somewhat dubious sobriquet of the ‘Elephants Graveyard'. India coach Bob Houghton feels Indian footballers can measure up to the challenge in the MLS, but did not seem entirely convinced.

"I think the players will be better off playing in Europe. Players go to the MLS towards the end of their career, not necessarily for football reasons," said Houghton, no stranger to the MLS, having coached Colorado at the start of his career.

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