March 28, 1990 12:00 PM

It’s a generation gap you could drive a school bus through. Almost 13 million U.S. kids play soccer, and its version of Little League has exploded fifteen-fold since 1975. Yet most grown-ups couldn’t tell a corner kick from a corn chip. SCOTT LETELLIER, a 39-year-old lawyer and soccer zealot, is out to change that. Everywhere else on the planet soccer is the No. 1 sport, the real fútbol, and why not? Gear is cheap, injuries are few, size is not a factor, and the action is deliriously continuous. But the international fever has not as yet caught on here, and major-league soccer went under in 1985. One hang-up for U.S. fans is that (as lovely as the foreplay is) soccer is low-scoring; a concomitant problem for TV is the lack of natural breaks.

Evangelist LeTellier is himself the epitome of the heathens he seeks to convert. Captain of his University of Tennessee tennis team, he considered soccer a snooze until he spent two years on a Mormon church mission in West Germany. There he became hooked on the beauty of the game. Already a sports freak (his dad was team physician of the old Milwaukee Braves), he gave up law to become a top lieutenant to Peter Ueberroth and made soccer the surprise best-attended event of the ’84 Olympics.

After the Games, he joined the international soccer bureaucracy and miraculously helped persuade it to stage the 1994 World Cup in the United States. He got another break when the U.S. national team qualified for this June’s Cup finals in Italy. To build on that momentum, LeTellier and Werner Fricker, head of the U.S. Soccer Federation, are shrewdly playing 22 U.S. cities against each other to become the eight to 12 sites of the ’94 finals. As for TV rights, the two are working on ways to insert commercials unobtrusively and to prevail upon a network to air at least 12 U.S. national-team games in the next four years. But can LeTellier finally make soccer happen here? Says his old boss Ueberroth: “He’s the right guy.”

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