Work in Sports
Fusion face must-win game vs. two-time champs United
Posted: Saturday October 23, 1999 11:34 PM
By Jeff Green, CNN/SI
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- They may be the home team, but they’re definitely not the favorites.
The Miami Fusion hosts D.C. United on Sunday in game two of a best-of-three, first-round playoff series. The odds are heavily stacked in favor of two-time Major League Soccer champion United, which opened the series with a 2-0 win last Saturday at RFK Stadium.
There’s a definite sense of déjà vu for the Fusion -- or at least for the six remaining players who saw playoff action last year. Just as in 1998, D.C. has cruised into the playoffs as the top seed, squaring off against a Fusion team that struggled mightily just to qualify. Last year’s series was over after two scrappy games.
“It’s a do-or-die game for us just like last year,” said Fusion goalkeeper Jeff Cassar, who reclaimed the starting job late in the season after recovering from knee surgery. “We have them in our corner now and we might do some damage here.”
The Fusion took the Lockhart Stadium field Saturday morning under bright South Florida sunshine for what could turn out to be the team’s final practice of the ’99 season.
One player not on the field was second-year defender Leo Cullen, an MLS All-Star and a member of the U.S. national team pool. Cullen watched practice from one of Lockhart Stadium’s sky tents, nursing what the team refers to as a contusion on the outside of his right foot.
According to Fusion coach Ivo Wortmann, Cullen will start Sunday in central defense alongside former United regular Brian Kamler.
Cullen doesn’t sound so sure.
“I’ve tried to play through it, but I don’t know if that’s the right decision or not,” he said. “I’ll have to seriously evaluate if I’m going to help the team tomorrow, because we have plenty of guys who can come in.”
The United team arrived at its Fort Lauderdale hotel Saturday afternoon without one of its own key defenders. Carlos Llamosa, who also sat out last week, will miss Sunday’s game with a strained MCL in his right knee.
Sitting down for a chat after his team’s arrival, D.C. coach Thomas Rongen said his players are focused on returning to MLS Cup for the fourth straight year. For Rongen, who coached at Tampa Bay and New England before taking over for Bruce Arena in D.C. last December, it would be his first.
“We are acutely aware of what our goals are; anything less than going to the finals will be a disappointment,” said Rongen. “The pressure is clearly on Miami. We’re coming in here with some confidence, and we think we can finish the series.”
Overconfidence, the Dutch-born coach said, will not be a problem.
“Any playoff game is tough,” he said. “They’re out to prove something. They’ve got some weapons that we need to deal with -- Welton, [Eric] Wynalda, [Edwin] Gorter, [Henry] Gutierrez. They can do some damage.”
D.C. captured the first game of the series on the strength of two goals from Bolivian forward Jaime Moreno, who signed a long-term contract with MLS last week. Goalkeeper Tom Presthus was forced to make only one save for the shutout.
“We’re pretty happy with the way we played, and that’s good because we weren’t playing good the last two games of the season,” Moreno said Saturday. “But I think we showed that now is the time we have to step up and start playing well.”
Winning the first match was crucial, Rongen said.
“It’s a limited series; it’s always important to win the first one. We certainly played better than we did in the last two games of the regular season,” Rongen said.
After falling out of the U.S. Open Cup and losing to Mexican club Necaxa in the CONCACAF Champions Cup, United went on to lose its final two regular season games at home. Of course, that followed an 11-game MLS winning streak. Rongen acknowledges a lack of intensity late in the season, long after first place was in hand.
“We were in a comfort zone, and we got a little too comfortable,” he said. “But I’d rather lose those games than the playoffs, so it was a good wake-up call as well.”
To stand a chance against United, Fusion players and coaches said, they will have to make the most of the home-field advantage.
“We just want to perform like we’ve done the last couple of games here, jump on them and play our style of game where we attack,” said defender Jay Heaps, a candidate for rookie of the year. “We’re coming away from D.C. where we played well, now we just have to score some goals. Our attack was lacking in D.C., but hopefully we’ll be able to throw something at them on our own field.”
“We like to play here,” Cullen said. “It’s a great stadium; the crowd’s right on top of you, and we feed off that, even when there’s only seven or eight thousand people.”
“We’ve lost the last seven to D.C., but you won’t find one guy out there on the field right now who doesn’t think that we’re going to beat them tomorrow,” Cullen said as his teammates went through a light workout below. “We respect DC. We still say DC is the best team in the league, and that’s the type of team that we want to be. But we don’t have too much respect for them where we’re going to come out and lay down.”
Wortmann said he plans to use the same starting lineup as last week. However, if Cullen is unavailable, rookie Jeff Bilyk likely will slide into defensive midfield alongside Jim Rooney, with Pablo Mastroeni falling back into central defense.
“I think we played a decent game in D.C. If we do a better job offensively tomorrow, we have a chance to win the game,” said the Brazilian-born Wortmann. “Against D.C., you have to play a possession game. If you don’t hold the ball up front, you get punished.”
“We did a good job last game defensively,” Wortmann said of his zone-marking back four. “But against players like Moreno, [Marco] Etcheverry and [Roy] Lassiter we have to keep concentration the whole game.”
The biggest difference between the two teams, Wortmann said, is that D.C. has been playing together for four years -- in addition to an advantage in experience. D.C.’s roster has a combined total of 127 playoff games under its belt, compared with 17 for the Fusion.
But that’s not all.
“They’ve got some great players across the board,” said the Fusion’s Wynalda. “I think they’ve got like six or seven national team players. We don’t have that... We have the potential, but we have to tap into our strengths. Offensively, we didn’t do that too well [last week].”
“D.C. is the better team,” said veteran Dutch midfielder Edwin Gorter, a midseason acquisition who will be given free reign to run the Fusion attack from the center of midfield. “But a game is a game, and it has to be played tomorrow at 1 p.m. After 90 minutes we will see where we are.”