WITH A FLICK OF HIS FOOT, Mark Santel of the Dallas Burn lofts the green, white, and blue ball high above the Cotton Bowl turf. It sails lazily over a knot of players in front of the opposition’s goal and appears to overshoot its mark. But suddenly, Santel’s teammate Hugo Sanchez, who is standing with his back to the net, launches himself into a semi-backflip and bicycle-kicks the ball into the goal. The fans who have come to see the aging star—the Wayne Gretzky of soccer—go berserk, banging makeshift drums, blowing whistles and horns, and whirling noisemakers.
The Burn is hot. One of ten teams that make up Major League Soccer (MLS)—America’s first topflight pro soccer league in more than a decade—Dallas’ newest sports franchise has been on a roll since its season began in mid-April. Led by veteran international stars like Mexico’s Sanchez, Colombia’s Leonel Alvarez, and Uruguay’s Washington Rodriguez and young American hotshots Santel, John Kerr, and high-scoring Jason Kreis, the Burn has held second place in the MLS’s Western Conference for most of the year, trailing only the powerhouse Los Angeles Galaxy. And if the press hasn’t been paying attention, preferring to cover the Texas Rangers’ best start in years, the Burn has received solid fan support, drawing an average of 17,844 people each home game—“About twice the attendance we anticipated,” beams the club’s president and general manager, Billy Hicks.
Hicks has good reason to be smiling. Dallas was the last city to land an MLS team, barely beating out Chicago for the final spot in the upstart league. Since it was a multi-year lease of the Cotton Bowl that tipped the scale in Dallas’ favor, the Burn’s success at home has been especially sweet. “This organization and this market have surprised a lot of people,” Hicks says. Count would-be investors among those who miscalculated. Unlike other pro leagues, the MLS owns the teams and sells the rights to run them for a minimum of $5 million. Before the season, however, no one was willing to put up that amount to manage the Burn, so operation of the team fell to the league itself. The Lamar Hunt family of Dallas had wanted to put in something less than $5 million but couldn’t find any partners, so they bought into only the Kansas City and Columbus clubs. Now that the Burn’s prospects have improved, the league expects the team to have an investor by the winter.
The Burn ends its regular season with a pivotal series against the Galaxy; the first showdown is slated for September 19 at the Cotton Bowl and will be aired on ESPN2. The league playoff series then begins on September 25, culminating on October 20 with a one-game championship in Foxboro, Massachusetts, which will be televised by ABC. Who knows? If the Burn can find a way to cool off L.A., the city of Dallas might celebrate yet another football championship this year.