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Player contracts bind individuals to the league rather than to an individual team, with paychecks ranging from a paltry $24,000 a year up to $247,000. Some extraordinary players (in notoriety if not always skill) -- such as Carlos Valderrama and Kansas City Wizards defender Alexi Lalas -- receive additional money through marketing deals orchestrated by MLS.
The Valderrama debacle is an apt illustration of the league's control over individual franchises. When the Fusion failed to find a solution to the player-coach standoff in April, the MLS imposed one: Valderrama was unilaterally "reassigned" to the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Partly as compensation for the loss of Valderrama, the Fusion received three players via trade earlier this month: defender Arley Palacios and forwards Eric Wynalda and Welton. All will undoubtedly help the team (Welton and Palacios have started every game since the trade; Wynalda is out with an injury until at least August), but they lack the star power of Valderrama and his shock of hair to draw fans to the stadium.
It is about 6:30 p.m. on the first day of May, and 25 Afusionados are gathered in front of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay. They are clad mostly in sky blue and yellow jerseys and shirts. They are singing -- as they have throughout the five-hour bus ride from Fort Lauderdale.
"!Pibe concha tu madre!" the group screams joyously, jumping up and down in time to the thumping pulse of the drum, faces aglow with the faux exuberance of alcohol and adrenaline. "APibe concha tu madre! APibe concha tu madre!"
The arriving Tampa Bay Mutiny fans look on with a mixture of bemusement and incomprehension.
"El Pibe" (The Kid), of course, is Carlos Valderrama, who until just two weeks earlier was the best-known player ever to don a Fusion jersey.
The rest of the phrase translates -- roughly -- as "motherfucker." It is to be repeated throughout the evening's contest, along with the equally profane "Pibe maricón" (queer) and various chants involving some combination of Pibe and puta, or whore.
"Pibe concha tu madre!"
Welcome back to Tampa Bay, El Pibe!
El Pibe was supposed to be the aging marquee player around whom the Fusion would build its future. The 37-year-old, three-time World Cup participant is one of the most notorious players in the world. He was transferred from Tampa Bay to Miami two years ago in hopes of jump-starting the expansion team. "Every time he touched the ball, there was a sense of magic, a sense of expectation in the crowd," recalls Ray Hudson.
Valderrama, however, never clicked with Coach Wortmann. The two battled publicly last year over the team's style of play and Valderrama's supposed lack of enthusiasm for defense. Their differences were supposedly put aside last season but then quickly resurfaced this year. Wortmann believed that the play of the entire team was being disrupted by El Pibe's presence. The end result was Wortmann declaring, in essence, that Valderrama would never play for him again.
Wortmann no longer wishes to discuss the blowup, cutting off a reporter before he can finish the question after a recent weekday practice. "This is over," says Wortmann. "We are not missing him. I respect Carlos. He's a great player, but this is not our problem. We are not missing Carlos."
But it's hard to underestimate the importance of El Pibe in the public's perception of the Fusion -- and consequently the team's ability to sell tickets. Valderrama's picture appears 12 times in the Fusion's media guide, more than twice as often as any other player. On the proclamation for "Miami Fusion Day" in Fort Lauderdale, which hangs on the wall of the team's offices, one of the whereases listed is that Valderrama plays for the Fusion -- the only player mentioned. At Sports Authority on North Federal Highway, the soccer section is dominated by a life-size picture of El Pibe in his Fusion jersey.
If driving out Valderrama was, in itself, a questionable move, there is no doubt that the way it was handled by the Fusion was abominable. Wortmann obviously knew throughout the off-season -- from October until March -- that he did not want to mold the team around El Pibe. Yet instead of dealing with the situation then, Wortmann and company waited until tensions reached a boiling point and the league was forced to intervene.
Rodger says he now uses the Valderrama debacle in marketing lectures as an example of how not to run a team. "It's probably the worst thing I've seen handled in my life," he says. "You just don't treat a player of Valderrama's caliber the way they treated him."
The Fusion's first trip to Tampa Bay following the trade does little to change this perception. Despite the vocal support of the Afusionados, the Fusion goes down meekly. Just nine minutes into the match, Tampa Bay forward Musa Shannon knocks home a header. The Fusion is used to early deficits: Five times this season, the Fusion has allowed a goal before ten minutes have elapsed on the clock. Against New England the team gave up a goal just 22 seconds into the game -- a record for futility.