Although Major League Soccer is still struggling for recognition as it enters its seventh season, it can at least take solace in accomplishing something over the winter that Major League Baseball couldn't: contraction. In January, MLS lopped off two of its most troubled franchises, the Miami Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny, not only to pare the league to 10 teams but also to condense the talent pool. "The level of competition is going to be outstanding this year," says New England Revolution coach Fernando Clavijo. "I just don't see any weak teams."
Clavijo has a selfish reason for appreciating contraction: He was able to pick over the rosters of the dearly departed clubs like Antiques Roadshow host Dan Elias at an estate sale. With the second and 12th picks in the dispersal draft the Revs acquired, respectively, forward Mamadou Diallo, the league's leading scorer in 2000, and attacking midfielder Alex Pineda Chacon, who won last year's scoring title. In between New England nabbed two more starters in defender Carlos Llamosa and midfielder Steve Ralston. Not a bad haul for a team that last year scored 35 goals (third fewest in the league) and missed the playoffs, but then no other team had the room to fit that many quality players under the league's salary and foreign-player caps. Says Clavijo, "With the dispersal draft we've pretty much covered all our needs."
If the 29-year-old Diallo can regain the form he showed in 2000, the Revolution's offense could be really special. A native of Senegal, he arrived in Tampa from Lillestrom of the Norwegian First Division, where agent Patrick McCabe had spotted him. A former player at Trinity College in Hartford, McCabe has always been a Boston-area sports fan, so his initial thought was to give the Revs first crack at Diallo. They were training in Mexico, however, and didn't get back to McCabe for two weeks. By then he had forwarded Diallo's r�sum� to the Mutiny, which snapped him up.
The 6'4", 190-pound Diallo is the first to admit that he's not the most technically skilled player. But everywhere he has played—Morocco, Switzerland, Turkey and Germany, as well as Norway—he has provided more quality finishes than the good folks at Minwax. Taking advantage of midfielder Carlos Valderrama's crafty feeds, he scored 26 goals in 28 matches in 2000, plus two in a 73-second span at the All-Star Game. Following that game, Diallo took the public-address microphone and, in slightly broken English, declared, "I am Big Mama, and Big Mama controls the field and scores goals." There's not much more to his soccer philosophy. "I am the goal scorer," says Diallo. "That is in my blood. I need to score."
His flair, including dyed-blond hair, quickly made him a fan favorite, but last season two suspensions cost him some supporters. The first was for a hard foul, the second for confronting a referee as the ref tried to keep Diallo from going after a fan in Colorado who, Diallo says, yelled racially abusive comments at him. Diallo scored only nine goals in 22 games. "Last year so many things were not right," he says. "It made me frustrated."
His frustration wasn't confined to the pitch. In the fall the French side Metz approached MLS about acquiring Diallo on loan, but the league balked when Metz wanted the deal to run into the 2002 MLS season. The French league is something of a home away from home for the Senegal team, which is coached by a Frenchman, Bruno Metsu. Not being able to play in front of Metsu and against his countrymen essentially doomed Diallo's chances of representing Senegal in the World Cup this summer.
The deal's demise still has Diallo seething. "Honestly, I was not happy," says Diallo, who has scored 21 goals in 46 games for his country. "It was a good chance for me to play in the World Cup, and it would have been good for MLS. I would have had a chance to do well in the World Cup, and then they'd say that Mamadou of Senegal played for Major League Soccer." What's bad for Diallo and Senegal is good for New England, though. Unlike almost every top professional league, MLS has games throughout the summer, so several of the league's elite players will miss substantial time during the Cup, which runs from May 31 to June 30.
Despite his absence from the national team, Diallo remains an enormous celebrity in Senegal, where he's known as Seybani, which means the Big Man in Wolof, his native language. When McCabe visited Senegal with Diallo in December, he was amazed by the royal treatment Diallo received. Even more astonishing to McCabe was how many people depend on Diallo, who had a group of at least 20 living in his house at the time. Every day at around 8 a.m. acquaintances would begin stopping in to see Seybani, who would grant audiences like Don Corleone on Connie's wedding day in The Godfather. They'd ask for a few bucks for this, a few bucks for that. The requests, almost always granted, would sometimes go on until 11:30 at night. "Literally, he's playing for all these people," says McCabe. "Now that's pressure."
Diallo got Puma to provide equipment for three youth teams he sponsors in his village of Oukam, and he is constantly on the lookout for any gear he can send home. Last Saturday, his first day at the Revolution's training facility in Foxboro, equipment manager Ryan Maxfield turned him on to a pile of unwanted shoes in an unused locker. Diallo snapped them up.
Any gestures of goodwill and sharing will be welcome among the Revolution players, who increasingly divided into cliques last season as things got worse on the field. Eager to heal the rifts, Clavijo took the team to Brazil for three weeks in January for what was equal parts training camp and Outward Bound. No English-speaking TV, no Internet, no cell phones—just a Ping-Pong table. "They were forced to integrate and talk to each other and do things together that they never did," says Clavijo. "It was the best 21 days that I've spent with a group of guys. Sometimes you need to realize that there are more important things in life than being able to get on the Internet."