RICHIE Williams is one reason why the great experiment with football (soccer) in America may just succeed. Williams is five foot and a little bit and plays in midfield for Washington DC United who put Instant-Dict to the sword last week. He has had spells with Ayr United and Cork City but returned home for the opening of the first Major League Soccer season. Williams is a busy player who knocks a fair ball around and likes to play it on the ground which, considering his lack of inches, is clearly advisable. But it is exactly those lack of vital inches that suggest the world's great game could gain a decisive breakthrough in American sport. Williams was a keen and natural athlete at high school, physically very fit and competitive, with a pleasant attitude. And he had the determination to succeed at a professional level in sport. But his physical stature meant the door was closed to him in two of the biggest paying sports in America: basketball and gridiron. Imagine at his height trying to make it on a basketball court against some of those beanpoles, while the amount of kit they wear in American football would have anchored him to the spot. But there are no distinctions in soccer, as an increasing number of American kids are finding and, more significantly, so are their parents. Skill and determination, not a freakish height or the all-round build of a man mountain, are the requirements. Even baseball, so totally American, is not structured for the less physical among the nation's young. It is not as loaded against the physically less endowed as American football and basketball, but not many coaches would be scrambling for the signature of someone of Williams' build if a heftier player of similar ability was around. Big seems to be beautiful in America but the glorious equality of soccer was demonstrated at a very high level in the FA Cup quarter-final which took place the day before DC United's comprehensive defeat of the local league champions. I watched Middlesbrough beat Derby County with the architect of the 2-0 win the diminutive Juninho. A superbly taken first goal and a devilish reverse pass to Ravanelli for the killer in the final minutes showed the Brazilian at his best. All five foot nothing of him. Soccer in America has been the province of the young for decades. There are more than 16 million kids who play but, sadly, they are nearly all lost to the game because, until last year, there was no ready-made stepping stone to a professional league. It has been no surprise to see a sizeable number of young Americans playing for German, Dutch, Austrian and Belgian teams. The emergence of Major League Soccer has given the most talented of the Americans a chance to return home and help spread the gospel there. John Harkes, the first American to score at Wembley, is an obvious example. In the wake of the highly successful 1994 World Cup, the rulers of the MLS were cautious, and probably rightly so. The league is very tightly controlled in relation to salaries and is no shortcut, at this stage, to riches to last a lifetime. It is good for the handful of big name top players who are spread around the clubs but the largesse does not extend to the journeyman professional. But the MLS clearly had the old North American Soccer League firmly in mind when it drew up the rules. The NASL was almost profligate and franchises were handed out willy nilly. Who remembers Team Hawaii? That probably underlined the unreality of the NASL. How could a team in the South Pacific, forced to travel to mainland America for all away games, possibly survive? With average crowds of 17,000 and a regular national television slot, the MLS has come much further in a year than the NASL did in its short history. Washington DC United are the MLS league champions and those who turned up last week saw exactly why the game can succeed. They gave a polished exhibition high on skill, intricate control and a determination to play it on the ground. In town briefly last week was Brian Harvey who was once with Dallas in the old NASL. Trying to bring the game to the people back then, the players had to knock on doors and introduce themselves and the game. Harvey, talking to one ageing Texan mowing his lawn, was advised, after some thought: 'Soccer? That's another name for s--t.' Things have certainly improved.