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Soccer site kicks into gear

Some of the neophyte Major League Soccer's closest coverage comes from an online outfit led by a college senior.

As America's Major League Soccer nears the end of its third regular season, it seems fitting that some of the neophyte league's closest coverage comes from an online outfit led by a college senior.

Like Major League Soccer, Nabeel Hyatt's SoccerSpot has had to be imaginative in trying to make a name for itself among established media concerns.

Competing in a growing market populated by the likes of Soccer America and ESPN, the site "commissions" Netizens from around the country to be unpaid reporters, offering only the chance to cover favorite teams.

While the writing quality can be a bit uneven, the enthusiasm is always obvious.

SoccerSpot also has absorbed some 20 soccer sites since getting under way earlier this year, incorporating coverage of semiprofessional leagues, selected youth competition, and some of the best American historical data on the Web. By teaming up with a database company that worked on soccer's 1994 World Cup, the site is able not only to blend its diverse content, but also to provide the means for reporters to file stories from afar.

Hyatt's inspiration came from his own soccer viewing on the Web. The Maryland Institute of Arts student was visiting "10 to 15 [sites per day] to get all the content I wanted, from youth to the national team. I decided to create a site that had everything," he said.

First he identified top contributors to the North American Soccer email list, people who were already producing content. Then Hyatt made a wish list of sites, such as Dave Litterer's U.S. Soccer History Archives, that he hoped to bring under his umbrella.

"What SoccerSpot offers is the added publicity of being one of the larger American [soccer] sites on Net," he said, rehearsing a pitch that apparently has been well-received. "It's the attraction of being upwardly mobile."

SoccerSpot's most important partner might be Demosphere International, a Northern Virginia company that rose to prominence when it handled database and networking chores for the penultimate World Cup, here in the United States. The company now manages the official sites of U.S. Soccer, America's governing body, and FIFA, the game's global authority.

"They are the only ones I've met out of all the reporters," Hyatt said, noting that he has not had face-to-face meetings with any of the two dozen or so people who write for him.

About half of SoccerSpot's MLS writers have received press credentials. Each team does its own accreditation, and some of the young franchises are more organized than others, Hyatt said.

Net journalists have had a rougher time than traditional media in getting accredited. But SoccerSpot's Internet journalists seem to be negotiating this rite of passage at least as well as online journalists covering more established professional sports.

SoccerSpot's volunteer basis doesn't guarantee top-flight journalism, said Demosphere president Jay Barker, but its breadth makes for a pretty complete picture. "Soccer America, with a large paid staff, should be able to report pretty well, but it may not have stories on the [MLS team] Columbus Crew each week.

"So someone following the Columbus Crew can participate and it puts [SoccerSpot reporters] into a better context, rather than be some lonely voice--not that it changes the quality," Barker added.

Future plans include NCAA coverage, personalization features, and a more powerful site search engine.

The first-year site isn't profitable. In fact, Hyatt says he is not even trying, since he considers SoccerSpot to be in beta and claims not to be looking at his hit counts. "We're primed to go to our third version in about a month," he said. "There is a profit plan in the long term--I'm talking five years, not one."

Hyatt's company, Interphase Designs, employs from one to eight individuals as outside contractors, depending on his workload at college. When classes get heavier, he hires more people. The endeavor is privately funded.