Team looks to rise to MLS challenge -- on and off field
Updated: Thursday April 05, 2001 5:13 PM
By Jeff Green, CNNSI.com
The Fusion's prospects for 2001 raise many questions, none more pressing than this: If a soccer team improves and no one is around to see it, does it make a difference?
In his first offseason as a professional coach, Ray Hudson set off around the globe in search of players to rebuild the Fusion around, after the club failed to make the playoffs for the first time.
The on-field product looks markedly stronger, but off the field, huge challenges remain. The Fusion had the league's worst attendance in 2000, and the new campaign is shaping up as a crucial one, with rumors circulating that the team could be in jeopardy if things don't improve.
Fusion investor-operator Kenneth Horowitz objected to dubbing 2001 a "critical" year for the Fusion.
"I don't know who says these things. I think it's the reporters," he told the Palm Beach Post.
"It's a very critical year," MLS commissioner Don Garber told the paper. The key, he added, is "if we start seeing a greater connection with the team and increased attendance, it's going to mean a lot to us."
With the team's shoestring approach to marketing, that puts tremendous pressure on Hudson to field a winning team that will draw fans.
To that end, Hudson racked up frequent-flyer miles traveling to Europe, Central America and South America, while he and general manager Doug Hamilton also looked for ways to improve from within the league. Hudson said he was determined not to repeat the Fusion's past mistakes, when it signed what he called "impostors."
The result of his search raises another question: Will one soccer ball be enough for these players?
The Fusion could take the field on opening day with three would-be playmakers, not to mention a ball-hungry forward in Diego Serna.
The list of additions includes English Premier League veteran Ian Bishop (a discovery player), Honduran Alex Pineda Chacon (an allocation awarded for not making the playoffs) and midfielder Preki -- all of them potential playmaking midfielders.
Also bolstering the roster are left-winger Chris Henderson and defender Carlos Llamosa.
Hudson expects Bishop to play a holding role in the midfield, leaving the roving creative duties to Preki, with Chacon perhaps paired on top with Serna -- if the Honduran has settled into the team in time. If not, Serna could play as the lone striker, or he could be paired with Cameroon-born Canadian under-20 international Ali Ngon, a second-round draft pick.
Bishop was acquired on a free transfer from Manchester City, where manager Joe Royle said of him: "He is surely one of the best uncapped players in this country in the last 10 years."
A 35-year-old who writes children's books, Bishop said he turned down more money from first division clubs for the challenge and adventure of coming to America.
The London's Sunday Times wrote of him a year ago, "In an era typified by a burgeoning breed of 'box-to-box midfield athletes' boasting 'good engines,' Bishop stands out as one of modern football's few remaining authentic playmakers."
"He's a great link player," said Hudson, who will look to Bishop to "be the glue of the team."
Bishop will be linking in part to Preki, the left-footed, 37-year-old midfielder acquired in a trade with the Kansas City Wizards, for whom the Fusion gave up just a third-round pick. (The Wizards will also receive an allocation from MLS when Preki retires.)
A surprise national-team call-up in March, Preki was the league MVP in 1997 and led Kansas City in scoring for their first four seasons, but he and coach Bob Gansler didn't see eye to eye on Preki's playing time.
Hudson was more than happy to take on the Serbian-born player, calling him "a real magician [who] can really pull rabbits out of hats. He has been a real headache for defenses and teams ever since the MLS started."
Already, Hudson said, it is evident that Preki will have to temper his demands on his teammates. Hudson went to lengths in the offseason to unload players were weren't good in the clubhouse (waiving malcontents Henry Gutierrez and Nelson Vargas and trading Roy Lassiter), and he's eager to maintain team cohesion.
"His demand of his teammates is very high. That's something we have to keep a little bit of a check on," Hudson said. "But for all of his individuality, he's very much a team player."
Pineda Chacon remains more of an unknown quantity, and has been slower to secure a spot. The 31-year-old has recorded more than 60 goals and 80 assists since his professional debut in 1988 with Olimpia, where he played most of his career. He has won more championships than any other Honduran player.
Hudson's hope is that Chacon can become "the perfect foil" for Serna.
"Chacon is a very creative, pinpoint passer," he said. "a clever player that can lead a player by a millimeter -- slide-rule passes, a wonderful guile to his game.
"It is going to be crowded in the midfield, but they're all going to be quality players, a lot of footballers, all great passers of the ball. That's got to be a good thing," he said. "We're going to pick up injuries, so there's going to be plenty of time for the guys to strut their stuff."
So who's going to receive all these pinpoint passes?
Pressure on Serna
Colombian forward Diego "El Humvee" Serna, an original Fusion member, "has got to be the spearhead."
Coming back from a knee injury, Serna's 2000 campaign was inconsistent. He carries a heavy burden for the Fusion offense in 2001.
"He can be a frustration sometimes because he tries to bite off more than he can chew, but then in the same breath he'll try the same thing and get away with it," Hudson said. "It's that unpredictability about him that makes him Serna.
"If he can refine [his play] this year, he'll have some very, very big clubs come knocking on his door at the end of his contract."
The acquisition of Pineda Chacon and Bishop also forced the team to unload two international forwards -- Brazilian Welton and Jamaican Andy Williams.
The Fusion also expects to get production from the wings in the form of Henderson on the left and Jay Heaps on the right, along with Jamaican international Tyrone Marshall.
Henderson was acquired in exchange for Lassiter, the MLS all-time leading scorer who spent one unsettled season in Miami, much of it in the throes of a contract dispute.
After he recovers from a shoulder injury, the left wing should belong to Henderson, a former U.S. international who was the leading scorer last season for the MLS champion Wizards. Heaps is virtually assured a starting spot, either at right midfield or right back, and he will be expected to contribute to the attack with his athleticism and aerial ability.
When Hudson set off on his search late last year, he said his two biggest priorities were strengthening the central midfield and fortifying the central defense.
'Hard as nails'
Enter Carlos Llamosa.
The Fusion acquired the U.S. international from D.C. United just before the MLS draft in February in exchange for defender/midfielder Brian Kamler and the fourth overall pick in Monday's 2001 MLS SuperDraft. Unhappy at being traded from D.C. to Miami in the first place, Kamler had never settled into the team.
With an attack-first mentality, Hudson will lean heavily on Llamosa to hold together the defense.
"He's hard as nails and is a real footballer," said Hudson. "I want Carlos to be our tower of strength, the heart of our defense."
Paired with him is likely to be Pablo Mastroeni, 24, one of only a handful of players with a starting spot secured.
"He's looking like an absolute Hercules back there," said Hudson, who called Mastroeni perhaps the team's best player and one of a few who could succeed in any league around the world.
Adding depth are hard-nosed South African international Ivan McKinley and Leo Cullen, who is recovering from a serious knee injury.
Under the microscope
Morale was low at the end of last season, but if anyone can motivate the new-look side, it's Hudson -- an enthusiastic Englishman who at this time last year was prepping for his third year as the team's TV broadcast analyst and his first as its community outreach manager.
Does he feel that the team is under MLS' microscope this year?
"Absolutely... that's the reality of it," Hudson said. "I think it's too much... I don't think it's fair to put that much pressure on me."
After the Fusion drew a league-low of just 7,460 a game in 2000, the league is looking for signs of improvement, dropping hints that the long-term viability of the club in South Florida depends in part on fan reaction this year. The tactic has worked before for MLS in Tampa.
Palm Beach resident Horowitz, however, says he is committed to South Florida, and he told a group of reporters that he planned to ask Broward County for up to $35 million for a "community soccer complex" at Lockhart Stadium.
"It's real tough to sit day after day and read about the Marlins looking for a $350 million stadium when we've never asked for anything," Horowitz said. "We have virtually been ignored, and my investors and I can't sit still anymore."
Despite poor attendance, he said the team will not be moved "until my investors and I have tried everything and determined there isn't hope for this market."
Marketing aside, it will come down to the product on the field.
"We're spicing the pot up," Hudson said. "But I don't know how it's going to come out. We won't know until we taste it."
Win or lose, he expects to have an exciting team.
"These are players that take chances. That's the big rub. That's me putting my reputation on the line."