Major League Soccer

A-League: Question marks over Usain Bolt, attendance decline

(AP Photo/Steve Christo, File)

By DENNIS PASSA

AP Sports Writer

As the A-League begins its 14th season, the biggest question in Australia seems to be: Will he or won't he?

"He" is the world's fastest man, Usain Bolt, who retired from track and field competition last year with eight Olympic sprint gold medals and world records in the 100- and 200-meters.

Those are marks he set at the Berlin world championships in 2009, and both records still stand as Bolt attempts to become a professional soccer player with the Central Coast Mariners.

The 32-year-old Jamaican scored two goals in his starting debut for the Mariners in a trial game last Friday. He still doesn't have a football contract, but the Mariners tweeted a video of his first goal and it has been watched more than six million times, giving a fair indication of the worldwide interest in Bolt's career change.

Here are some other things to know about the 10-team A-League, which begins play Friday when Adelaide United hosts Sydney FC:

Bolt's two-goal performance ignited the interest of several European clubs, most particularly Malta's Valletta FC.

The club's chief executive officer Ghasston Slimen told Australian media that he has offered Bolt a two-year contract. Valletta is owned by the Abu Dhabi-based Sanban Investment Group. "We play the final of the Super Cup on Dec. 13 ... so can you imagine Usain Bolt lifting the Super Cup trophy 10 years after he broke the record in Beijing? It will be history and it should happen."

Bolt is in Australia on an extended trial period, and Mariners' coaching staff might not make a decision until January on his fulltime status with the club. Another indication that Bolt's status with the team - and league- may not be a long-lasting one: A-League brass didn't include a mention of Bolt in new releases for the official season launch on Monday.

On the weekend, a disgruntled Bolt complained on his social media account that he was ordered to take a doping test. "So guys, I've retired from track and field looking to become a footballer but look at this," he posted as he posed with an official pink slip. "How am I going to get a drug test today? I'm not even a professional footballer yet."

Crowds have been on the decline at A-League games for the past five years. From 1.88 million spectators in the 2013-14 season - an average of 13,479 per match - attendance dropped to 1.529 million during the 2017-18 season, or 10,926 per match. The Mariners had the second-worst attendance in the league, behind only New Zealand's Wellington Phoenix. The Mariners, based at Gosford about an hour north of Sydney, had only 93,570 fans last season, an average of 7,194 - just another reason why Bolt would be a welcome addition to their roster. League officials don't appear to be concerned with the attendance drop, announcing Wednesday that they are considering six bids for an expected expansion by two teams in the 2019-20 season.

Midfielder Keisuke Honda, who has played 98 times and scored 32 goals for Japan, is the league's big marquee attraction this season. A marquee player means his contract is not included in the salary cap, and the most famous player in that category was former Juventus great Alessandro del Piero with Sydney FC in 2012.

Honda will lead the defending champion Melbourne Victory in a derby match against Melbourne City on Saturday.

The 32-year-old Honda, who has played for clubs in Italy, the Netherlands, Russia, Japan and Mexico, said he's happy to deal with the expectations that come with his marquee status.

"I've got used to this pressure many times," Honda said at the league launch. "I made people disappointed and also I've made people happy. I don't have any magic."

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Updated October 16, 2018

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