By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Instead of capitulating to Carollo's demands, Kenneth Horowitz, the Fusion's lead investor, decided to take his team elsewhere. Horowitz pumped in almost $5 million to upgrade the cozy confines of Lockhart Stadium, which had been home to the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League from 1977 to 1983. But because the deal was negotiated with less than four months remaining before the Fusion's home opener, stadium workers were still hustling to put in seats and install skyboxes right up until opening night.
Ray Hudson, who provides animated television commentary for Fusion games and who was a long-time midfielder for the Strikers soccer team, believes the Fusion has never recovered from the initial disarray. "Since then, they've always been behind the eight ball and the eight ball seems to keep getting bigger and bigger," Hudson says.
In the midst of this confusion, Fusion brass made a detrimental marketing error that would have ramifications throughout the season. The team set ticket prices at $18 to $30, a level closer to the Heat or the Panthers than to what other MLS clubs charge. (The average MLS ticket price last year was $13.82.) Instead of competing for entertainment dollars against a night out at the movies with popcorn, the Fusion would be asking potential soccer fans to dole out twice that amount, not to mention $5 for parking.
The decision to base the team at Lockhart also put up significant barriers to drawing on Miami-Dade's dominant Hispanic population, a large part of which has strong soccer roots. Leo Stillitano, the Fusion's initial general manager, who was hired with the understanding that the team would play in Miami, says that he envisioned Valderrama as a major draw to the Colombian population that had established itself down in Kendall. The Broward stadium locale, to a large degree, cut off that potential market.
By the second home match of the season, attendance had dipped to less than 15,000 (this despite a gratis postgame Ziggy Marley concert), and then continued on a steep descent. On August 30, an all-time low for futility was reached when just 6127 fans watched the Fusion defeat the New England Revolution, 3-2. Despite squeaking into the playoffs with some impressive late-season victories (the Fusion ended up 15-19; everyone makes the playoffs in the MLS) and slashing ticket prices near the end of the season, the average attendance for the year was 10,284, second worst in the league.
The first three months of this season have been, if anything, worse. Average attendance for home games is 8461, more than 40 percent below the league average, and the team is exacerbating the situation by playing miserably. The Fusion's record is 4-11, and the team has lost eight of its last nine games. It is in last place and has given up more goals (30) than any other MLS team.
Fusion Coach Ivo Wortmann was hailed as a savior last year when he took over in July and led the team to the playoffs. Now fans are calling for his head. Wortmann notes that his players are young -- the average age is just 25 -- and that it takes time for a team to jell on the field. "I'm working up for this year but looking for the future," he claims. "Sometimes to build a winning team, to build a good team, takes a little time. If people are not patient, it's not my problem," Wortmann says dismissively.
Patience is definitely running thin -- with both the Fusion's management and its team. "From day one the Miami Fusion ownership and management has failed to impress me in any sense, quite honestly," says Jamie Trecker, editor of the soccer magazine Kick! and a columnist for ESPN: The Magazine. "I have never had a sense that they have a handle on the market, or the game, or really a concrete idea of what their mission is."
Eddie Rodger is the former general manager of the Strikers and now runs Kicks International, a soccer-marketing company in Fort Lauderdale. He says that the second-greatest moment in his life, after the day his son was born, was when the Fusion arrived in town. That sentiment has now soured. "I've got a lot of bitterness in me," he says. "They've made a million mistakes."
The D.C. United game in late May at which PK's livelihood was put in jeopardy is a ripe example of the predicament in which the Fusion finds itself. The crowd is a paltry 7000-plus. The east end of the stadium contains barely enough people to field a pickup game. One of the largest contingents of fans is camped out underneath a Bolivian flag. They are there not to cheer on the Fusion but to salute United's playmaker supreme, Marco Etcheverry, and his Bolivian compatriot, Jaime Moreno.
Despite the somber atmosphere and the complete domination of the game by D.C. United, the Fusion mounts an unlikely comeback. What the Fusion lacks in grace (which is hard to underestimate), it makes up for with grass-eating tenacity -- at least for the final 15 minutes. After a flurry of activity in front of the D.C. United goal, Fusion midfielder John Maessner propels the ball toward the net from the top of the box, scissor-kicking it over his head -- the crowd-pleasing bicycle kick. A lurking Diego Serna heads it home. The Fusion is down by just a goal with ten minutes to go.