Tuesday, July 13, 1999 | 10:49 a.m.
Some of the top professional soccer clubs in North and Central America are coming to Las Vegas, playing for some very high stakes.
The CONCACAF (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Football) Champions Cup will be staged Sept. 29-Oct. 3 at Sam Boyd Stadium with the winner earning the right to play in the inaugural FIFA World Club Championship in January 2000 in Brazil.
The tournament will feature teams from the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, the Caribbean and Honduras. A formal announcement will be made today at a press conference at the Desert Inn Resort and Casino.
CONCACAF is one of six confederations overseen by FIFA, the world governing body of soccer. There are 38 member countries in the CONCACEF confederation, stretching from Canada in the north to Surinam in the south.
The Champions Cup winner will play the other confederation winners in the FIFA World Club Championship. Included in that tournament will be Manchester United, which rallied late in the game to defeat Bayern Munich 2-1 in the European Club Championship in May.
Three of the teams for the CONCACAF Champions Cup are set. Defending champion D.C. United of Major League Soccer; the Chicago Fire, which won the MLS Cup last year; and Toluca of the Mexican First Division, which lost to D.C. United in last year's Champions Cup final, will be in Las Vegas.
It will be MLS' second exposure to Las Vegas. In March, the Colorado Rapids and Kansas City Wizards played at UNLV and drew more than 2,000 fans for a scrimmage that had virtually no advance publicity.
The CONCACAF Champions Cup will have plenty of publicity behind it. Chuck Blazer, CONCACAF's general secretary, was scheduled in town today to make the official announcement and Las Vegas Events will be involved in the event promotion.
D.C. United has been a perennial power since MLS' inception four years ago. It won the first two MLS Cups, but lost to Chicago 2-0 in last year's MLS Cup Final.
Even though coach Bruce Arena left to oversee the U.S. National Team, D.C. United hasn't missed a beat under current coach Thomas Rongen. United sits atop the Eastern Conference standings at 12-7. Former National team member Roy Lassiter has 14 goals and 35 points to lead United in scoring and Bolivian midfield sensation Marco Etcheverry is the MLS Most Valuable Player and all-time assists leader.
The Fire has maintained contact with Colorado through most of the 1999 MLS season. Chicago is second to the Rapids with a 10-7 record and 28 points. Goalie Zach Thornton was MLS' Goalkeeper of the Year in '98, posting a 1.17 goals-against average and eight shutouts.
But the team that figures to draw the greatest interest in Las Vegas is Toluca. The Red Devils have won two of the last three Mexican championships and have two of the Mexican National Team stars in Jose Manuel Abundis and Salvador Carmona along with Paraguayan star Jose Cardozo.
Toluca met D.C. United in last year's CONCACAF Champions Cup final at RFK Stadium, but lost 1-0 in front of a crowd of only 12,607.
The teams should enjoy the new grass playing surface being installed at Sam Boyd Stadium. There will be approximately 70 yards of width, which is the FIFA minimum requirement. It should make for attractive soccer.
As for playing eight matches in a short time having an adverse effect on the field, Thomas & Mack Center director Pat Christenson doesn't anticipate any problems returning the playing surface to the UNLV football team in reasonably good shape.
"I have no concerns about the field," he said.
"Unlike football, where you're going to have long cleats and heavy traffic up the center of the field, soccer players use shorter cleats and the action is spread out over the entire field, so one particular area doesn't have as much wear."
But in the event of damage, there will be ample time to fix things. The football team is out of town until Oct. 23, which would give the stadium personnel three weeks to get things in shape.