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DIFFERENT WORLD FOR THESE STARS SOCCER: PLAYERS ACCUSTOMED TO EUROPEAN FEEL ADJUST TO APATHY EXHIBITED TOWARD SPORT IN THE UNITED STATES.

Byline: Scott Wolf

Staff Writer

When Abel Xavier played in Europe, he reached the Champions League semifinals with Benfica in Portugal and the quarterfinals as a member of the Dutch team, PSV Eindhoven.

"Any player wants to play for the best," Xavier said. "There were some great moments."

But today Xavier plays for the Galaxy of Major League Soccer, in which the ultimate silverware is the MLS Cup.

"I don't know of any kid who goes to bed dreaming about the MLS Cup," said Steven Cohen, the host of the World Soccer Daily radio show and Fox Football Fone-in. "They can win the MLS Cup? Who cares?

"That is the staggering problem the MLS has. They're playing for a trophy that nobody cares about. At the end of the day, they can bring on Pele, Maradona, (David) Beckham and it doesn't make any difference. They can only win the MLS Cup."

OK, that's the first problem, but for European players like Xavier and Beckham there are a host of other obstacles coming from the best leagues in the world.

Yes, many of these players are past the prime of their careers and seeking a few more years of professional soccer (and money), but they must overcome more than the fact they no longer play the most popular sport in the country.

For Beckham, the vast size of the United States poses the biggest adjustment after years playing in England and Spain. The idea of flying six hours from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., for a league game is unprecedented to the English native.

"For everyone else, the only time that they fly these distances is in the Champions League," Beckham said. "If you go from England to Russia, it's only four hours. The distance, the time difference and heat all come into play here."

That is the most common complaint, especially from Galaxy coach Ruud Gullit, a Dutch legend who was one of the best players of his generation.

"We play in the summer and its 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) and it happens a lot," he said.

Those complaints are minor compared to some of the stickier issues. MLS can play more night games to avoid harsh summer heat, but what can be done about the quality of play?

"What I found is there is no format here," Xavier said. "No academies. No youth teams."

The Galaxy even pulled someone out of the marketing department earlier this season because it did not have enough players for a reserve game.

"I also see football-wise a different game," Xavier said. "Many teams' tactical awareness is a deficit. The games are open, so you can play away or home and it doesn't matter."

Xavier said MLS teams are not disciplined enough or tactically aware enough to shut down opponents on a consistent basis. That actually might be better for fans, who get higher- scoring games, but it does not impress someone like Xavier, who also played for Liverpool and AS Roma.

"You can see in the European championships most of the teams play eight men behind the ball. That says a lot," Xavier said. "I don't see a lot of ability in the MLS to do that."

A contrary view comes from Galaxy striker Landon Donovan, who played in Germany playing for Bayer Leverkusen.

"Tactics don't really come into play as an issue," Donovan said. "The misconception is people think if you come here it's easier. The reverse is true. If players are not as talented, it's harder to (receive) the ball."

Donovan said in Europe there is more respect for players' skills, and defenders will back off so they don't get burned.

"The sheer athleticism and speed of the players here is just as good," Donovan said.

Critics might argue that Donovan did not succeed in Europe and needed to step down a level in order to find success in the MLS. But Donovan said he was too immature to excel.

"I was young and mentally, I wasn't ready for it," Donovan said. "I'd have good days in training and bad days. I wasn't ready to compete."

There is another sore subject for European players adjusting to the MLS: the referees. Xavier was fined $500 for critical remarks a few weeks ago after his controversial foul led to a late tying goal.

"The referees are not prepared for the pace of the game to give the correct judgment," Xavier said. "Linesmen cannot follow the back four because they are not fit.

"When you consider some of the refs are college refs, then this is one of things the league must address. The refs must be professional."

Even the always diplomatic Beckham admitted his preference for home-grown officials after the Columbus game.

"I believe English referees are the best in the world," Beckham said. "I'm not biased because I'm English. I believe they are the best."

scott.wolf@dailynews.com

GALAXY

CHIVAS USA

THURSDAY

Galaxy vs. Chivas USA, 8 p.m., Home Depot Center.

TV: ESPN2

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Photo:

For the Galaxy's David Beckham, left, and Abel Xavier, playing in Major League Soccer has meant adjusting to long travel, officiating and lack of prestige.

David Boily/AFP/Getty Images
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Title Annotation:Sports
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jul 9, 2008
Words:870
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