Total ConFusion

In barely two seasons, the management has run the Miami Fusion into the ground. The fans are not pleased.

The fluorescent green lizard wearing a Miami Fusion uniform has picked a bad time to visit section 113.

It is about midway through the second period on a steamy Saturday afternoon in late May, and the Fusion is losing -- again. D.C. United has just scored its second unanswered goal of the game. Diego Serna, the Fusion's prolifically scoring forward, is gesturing angrily at his teammates as yet another sprint toward the opposing goal ends with the ball sailing beyond the tip of his toe or over his head. South Florida's two-year-old professional soccer team is on its way to a fifth-straight defeat.

In section 113 at the west end of Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, home to the Fusion's small, loosely organized, but intensely loyal supporters' group, La Sur de los Afusionados, it is uncharacteristically quiet. The usual physical intensity -- the ecstatic singing, drumming, screaming, and jumping -- has almost ceased, replaced with muted lethargy.

Facundo Estevez, who says he doesn't have a girlfriend because he's "married to the Fusion," is hiding behind blue-tinted wraparound shades. Estevez is feeling the nauseous aftereffects of a night of drinking, exacerbated by the afternoon sun -- and another dismal Fusion performance. He is one of the Afusionados' leaders.

Harmonious, encouraging chants of "AVamos, vamos Fusion!" have been replaced by sporadic cries of "AQue se vaya Ivo Wortmann!" a not-very-subtle request that the Fusion's head coach take a permanent vacation back to his native Brazil.

The Fusion's barely month-old mascot, promoted as a "friendly green lizard" known as "PK" (for "penalty kick"), becomes the unfortunate focus of the supporters' energy.

"Get the fuck out of here, you fucking lizard!" screams Hector, a ponytailed, beer-drinking Afusionado. "Ever since you came here, we've had bad luck!"

Hector then threatens to bring a faux PK to the next home game and hang it in effigy. Others in the crowd echo Hector's sentiments: PK deserves to die.

The friendly green lizard appears oblivious to the menace lurking inside the sweaty, alcohol-fueled crowd.

Moments later, as PK stands waving on the walkway in front of section 113, a small cavalry of about 15 Fusion supporters, mainly teenage boys, pounce on him. He is assaulted with fists, thrown more in jest than out of a desire to inflict injury. The lizard with the permanent smile flees his menacing band of attackers. PK has not returned to section 113.

And so it goes for the Miami Fusion franchise.
After 18 months of bungling and mismanagement, both on the field and off, not even the mascot escapes blame.

The Fusion's woes are legion. Attendance at home games is abysmal. The team's only legitimate superstar -- Carlos Valderrama, he of the electric-shock hairdo -- was benched and then driven out of town after battling with the coach earlier this year. In less than two seasons, three different management teams have been brought in from out of state to try to lead the franchise. And the Fusion's management has alienated much of the South Florida soccer community with its arrogance.

The 30 or so hard-core Afusionados -- and the hangers-on that crowd section 113 for each home game -- are one of the few things the organization has going for it. Yet the Afusionados often feel that the team is doing its best to drive them out of the stadium as well.

"It's embarrassing for me," says Estevez a few days after the D.C. United match. "I don't know where to hide my face."

Stilt-walkers and fire-eaters performed to the rhythms of calypso music. Curly blond wigs and Colombian flags, in honor of Valderrama, were in abundance. Fireworks exploded in celebration. On March 15, 1998, a festive sellout crowd of 20,450 packed the freshly painted blue and yellow seats of Lockhart Stadium for the Fusion's inaugural game. At least 3000 more were turned away at the gate. Doug Logan, the commissioner of Major League Soccer (MLS) declared Lockhart Stadium a "prototype" for other teams to emulate.

"I still remember what a pain in the ass -- but what a thrill it was -- to find the monumental traffic jam at that first game," recalls Karl Kremser, head coach of the men's soccer team at Florida International University. "To walk in there and see that place packed -- it was just a tremendous moment as far as soccer was concerned down here."

Section 113 was packed with jubilant supporters bellowing newly christened songs: "AOle, ole, ole, ole, Fusion, Fusion!" The Afusionados sold 500 tickets for their section and passed out 1000 songbooks to supporters before the game. Adding-machine paper cascaded down from the stands. When United forward Jaime Moreno was booted from the game in the second half for a flagrant foul, the section unanimously decreed him "hijo de puta" -- son of a whore.

The carnival-like atmosphere was short-lived. The Fusion lost two-nil, but more significantly the organization was already showing signs of unraveling -- like one more role of adding-machine paper.

Months before the start of the season, Fusion management had been hamstrung by its inability to find a home stadium for the club. As the team's moniker suggests, the initial plan was for the Fusion to be based in Miami. But contentious negotiations between the Fusion and Miami mayor Joe Carollo over the use the Orange Bowl broke down when the city initially insisted on a ten-year lease.

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.

La Sur de los Afusionados reignites. The big bass drum, scrawled with the names of fans and players, pounds. Chants of "AVamos, vamos Fusion!" once again reverberate through the west end of the stadium. A gangly, longhaired Afusionado in an Argentina jersey stands precariously on the fence at the front of the section and whips a shirt wildly above his head. Section 113 is momentarily a cauldron of soccer passion amid the vast emptiness of Lockhart Stadium.

Then comes the kick to the groin.
Throughout the week the Fusion had run advertisements in the daily newspapers touting the D.C. United match as a biblical battle between good and evil. Marco Etcheverry, who is known as El Diablo (the Devil), was cast in the role of evil. Jeff Cassar, the Fusion's musclebound goalkeeper, has been christened Superman and was the standard-bearer for the forces of good. Etcheverry's head was adorned with horns in the ads; Cassar sported a halo.

As the final seconds of the game tick away, Cassar is far upfield, hoping to assist in the Fusion's final attack. The ball, however, somehow ends up at Etcheverry's magic -- and devilish -- feet. As Cassar retreats to his goal, El Diablo chips the ball softly over Superman's head. The ball trickles into the empty net. Time expires. Evil has triumphed over good. Again.

Over the last two seasons, the Afusionados have often felt cast in the role of evil by Fusion management.

Early last year, as the Fusion rushed to get Lockhart Stadium ready for opening night, Facundo Estevez began an ad hoc campaign to create a supporters group for the club. He loitered at various pedestrian-heavy locales in South Florida -- South Beach, Miami-Dade Community College -- preaching the Gospel of fœtbol. Estevez carried props to help communicate his message: pictures of passionate South American soccer fans. The 23-year-old, who was born in Miami and has lived in Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia, wanted to bring that passion to South Florida. He envisioned 5000 supporters jumping and singing in unison, an airplane so packed with exuberant Fusion fans en route to an away game that it would shake as if going through a nasty pocket of turbulence.

Estevez gathered about 2000 names, telephone numbers, and addresses of passersby who expressed interest in being part of the group. Without a nickel of the Fusion's money, he was building what could become a core fan base for the team.

Around the same time, Andrew Hazleton was working in a similar vein, but through the Internet. Hazleton is a 32-year-old computer networks salesman with a soccer-rich bloodline of Brazilian and English heritage. Also with his own resources, he created a Website for the Fusion and an electronic mailing list to keep would-be fans updated on developments concerning the neophyte team.

Eventually the two formed the Afusionados, bringing their groups together -- without any help from the Fusion, ironic given the team's name.

The problems began when Estevez and Hazleton approached Fusion management with their project. The team was initially helpful and provided stamps for the Afusionados' first mailing to potential members and a separate ticket booth was set up at Lockhart Stadium for the supporters group.

But as the crowds dwindled in every other part of the stadium, section 113 began to feel like an armed encampment. There were often a half-dozen cops posted around the admittedly tumultuous Afusionados. Drums were confiscated. Paper was confiscated. "The straw that broke the camel's back was the kid that was thrown out for blowing a whistle," says Hazleton. There were so many police in the area that the Afusionados came up with songs for them -- in Spanish, naturally. One of them, as translated by Estevez (admittedly, it loses some of its charm in English), goes:

Police police police
I feel sorry for you
Every time you come bother us
Your wife goes stroke someone else.

In late April, Hazleton sat down with the police and Fusion management to resolve problems in section 113. Drums and paper, everyone present decided, would be allowed into the stadium, but not firecrackers, flares, or anything that could cause damage. Hazleton believed progress had been made.

At the match immediately after this meeting, several Afusionados were tossed from the game for throwing... toilet paper. In the ensuing ruckus, several supporters, including Hazleton, were arrested.

"The police, they weren't used to a crowd like ours," says Andres Jervis, another Afusionados leader. "They weren't used to the passion that soccer brings. They thought that we were gonna riot and kill people."

For the most part, the problems with law enforcement have been resolved this year. With the exception of an overzealous Afusionado who destroyed a toilet paper dispenser in the men's room after a rare Fusion victory, the only run-ins with the police have been on the road at Tampa Bay.

One major reason for the easing of tensions in section 113 is Dona Cardoza, an administrative assistant with the Fusion. She has become a kind of Afusionados den mother. Cardoza knows each of the hard-core supporters by name and understands how to deal with their antics. "I smack them, and I push them, and I pull them, and they don't say boo to me, because they respect me," says Cardoza. At home games she diffuses the Afusionados' baser instincts, while keeping the police and security guards at bay.

The present Fusion management publicly embraces the supporters. "Whether we've been up or down, they've been a part of us," says Doug Hamilton, who along with Ken Chartier has been the team's co-managing director since April. "They certainly make our environment and our stadium among the best in the country."

Despite these sentiments, La Sur de los Afusionados sometimes continues to feel like they are the enemy when dealing with the team's top brass. Hazleton, who opted this year to eschew section 113 for midfield seats with his wife and two children, says he has lobbied repeatedly for the Fusion to identify the west end as the home of the Afusionados so that fans offended by the group's antics would know to sit elsewhere. (There's certainly no dearth of empty seats.)

"They still haven't put any disclaimer up, and it makes the Afusionados look like the bad guys," Hazleton says.

Estevez says that he has attempted to contact Hamilton to discuss how the Afusionados might work with the team but to no avail. "He's too busy to talk to the real fans," says Estevez. "I'm tired of his mumbo jumbo."

The Afusionados are a tiny sliver of the Fusion's fan base, and they are far from the only people who have been alienated by Fusion management. Many people in the soccer community have been turned off by the arrogance of the organization and its unwavering emphasis on ticket sales above all else. Instead of attempting to build long-term relationships with potential fans through player appearances, youth clinics, and other community events, the Fusion has often approached people with its hands out.

David Villano is head of the Florida Soccer Coaches Association, which has more than 100 members stretching from Key West to Lake Okeechobee. The high-school coaches who are part of the association have daily contact with thousands of students with an obvious interest in soccer. In other words, potential Miami Fusion fans.

In August, Villano faxed a letter to Fusion management asking if the team's coaching staff would participate in an October clinic for members of the association. Despite numerous follow-up calls, Villano received no response. He then faxed a second letter to the organization but still could not get an answer. Finally, with the clinic fast approaching, Villano sent a third letter, this one to recently hired chief operating officer Betty D'Anjolell.

Villano subsequently met with D'Anjolell and Craig Tornberg, the team's then-director of crowd-building, in September. "Rather than being conciliatory, she was downright aggressive and obnoxious," says Villano, who coaches at Ransom Everglades School in Miami. D'Anjolell's first response to the idea of helping out with the clinic, he says, was, "How much can you pay us?" Her second response: "How many tickets can you sell?"

Villano came to the meeting armed with a list of ideas for how the two organizations could work together. For example, he suggested sending Fusion players to various high schools for question-and-answer sessions. Fusion management's response to this idea was a condescending question: Do you think Dan Marino shows up at birthday parties for Dolphin fans?

The Fusion coaching staff did eventually participate in the clinic but only after Villano went over D'Anjolell's head and appealed directly to assistant coach Nick Megaloudis. "It was the management that seemingly did everything possible to throw a wrench in what was an ideal community-outreach opportunity," Villano notes.

(D'Anjolell could not be reached for comment for this story.)
Villano says that the Fusion's newest management regime is trying to make amends for the past troubles. He and another member of the coaches association met in March with Ken Chartier. As a goodwill gesture, the Fusion recently provided free tickets to the group's members and a space where they could meet before the start of the soccer match.

It may be too late, however: Only a handful of coaches showed up for the event. "Basically, what we're saying is, the Fusion can't give away tickets," says Villano.

Beyond arrogance, a major cause for the Fusion's difficulties in developing a larger fan base is its revolving door at the management level. This inconsistency at the top has been compounded by the team's continued reliance on executives from outside the area who are not necessarily familiar with the peculiarities of South Florida. The Fusion has flown in recruits with a track record of success in other cities but virtually ignored the services of experts in its back yard.

Tom Mulroy, for example, a leading soccer consultant who runs the Copa Latina soccer tournament each year in Miami-Dade, has had only fleeting contact with the organization since its inception. "The attitude was, 'We know how to do it, and all you soccer guys are knuckleheads,'" says Mulroy. "With that attitude they have dug themselves a deeper and deeper hole."

Leo Stillitano, the team's first general manager, believes he was handicapped from the start because of the team's decision to play its home games in Fort Lauderdale. Rather than being able to focus on what Stillitano believes are his strengths -- the Hispanic and international communities -- the move necessitated more of an emphasis on attracting suburban soccer families from areas like Pembroke Pines and Plantation.

Even before Stillitano's departure, Betty D'Anjolell was recruited by the Fusion to bolster fledgling ticket sales and community relations. D'Anjolell had previously worked as executive vice president with D.C. United. When Stillitano resigned in September, D'Anjolell became the team's top executive. But at the end of March, as the Fusion's second season was getting under way with attendance still alarmingly low, D'Anjolell also resigned.

Hamilton and Chartier are the latest soccer executives to arrive in South Florida. Both worked at Adidas and then at CC&C Management, Chartier's marketing company in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Hamilton is the full-time managing director of the club, while Chartier splits his time between Fort Lauderdale and Myrtle Beach.

Both men acknowledge that the Fusion has alienated potential fans in the past but are loath to point a finger at anyone in particular. They note that it takes time to build a successful professional sports franchise, particularly in South Florida, where baseball, basketball, and hockey teams have all set up camp within the last decade. The sports market will soon be stretched thinner with the arrival of a women's professional basketball team next year.

"We have not done a good-enough job in the last year and a half of becoming a part of the fabric of South Florida soccer," says Hamilton.

Chartier says that he does not consider being from out of town a liability. "I may not be from South Florida, but I'm part of the soccer family," Chartier notes, rattling off the names of people he's long known in the South Florida soccer world, such as Mulroy, Rodger, and FIU coach Kremser. Hamilton and Chartier often echo the language of the team's critics. "It's one thing to ask somebody to buy a ticket," says Chartier. "It's another to say, 'How can we help you?'"

Even if Chartier and Hamilton have the wherewithal and marketing savvy to turn the franchise around, it is unclear whether they will be given the free rein to do so. Stillitano notes that even though he was the top executive at the Fusion during his tenure, ultimate decision-making power rested with Kenneth Horowitz, the team's main financial backer. For example, Stillitano says, in the earliest days of the franchise, he pushed for Ivo Wortmann to be appointed the team's head coach. Horowitz, however, went with his own choice, Carlos "Cacho" Cordoba. Cordoba lasted just four months, compiling a record of 8-11. Wortmann replaced him in July.

"In the end Horowitz had the final say," says Stillitano. "In professional sports owners always have the final say."

Kick! editor Jamie Trecker and others say that Horowitz's soccer inexperience (he made his money in the cellular telephone business) does not bode well for the team's future. "You've got ownership who clearly don't know what they're doing," Trecker says.

(Horowitz declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Adds Rodger, who worked as a consultant for the team when it was just getting off the ground: "You've got a non-soccer person that has been very successful in all his business endeavors, and all of sudden he is not having success -- so panic has taken over."

The debilitating problems of the Fusion are not unknown to the MLS at large. In its fourth year of operation, MLS continues to hemorrhage money -- about $60 million in its first three years -- and to struggle to fill the stands. It has made great strides in some cities, like Columbus, where a brand-new, soccer-only stadium has energized fans. But it has faltered in others, including Los Angeles, where attendance dropped off dramatically this year.

The league has tweaked the international game of football in hopes of making it more palatable to American sports fans. In the belief that Americans cannot handle the ambiguity of a tie, MLS instituted a shootout. If a game is deadlocked at the end of regulation, each team gets five attempts to score from 35 yards out. MLS Teams get three points for a flat-out victory but just one point for a shootout win.

MLS also instituted a multiround playoff system that is closer in format to American sports leagues than to other soccer leagues -- where titles are usually won solely through regular-season contests. And unlike soccer matches all over the world, in which the official game time is known only to the referee on the field, MLS keeps a running scoreboard clock.

According to the league, this brand of soccer is of the "entertaining, young, hip, and cool variety." But the end result of these changes has been to alienate some ardent soccer fans while making only modest inroads in attracting the generic American sports enthusiast.

Despite MLS' best efforts to Americanize football, the league is quite different in its business operations from the National Football League or Major League Baseball. In part because of the MLS' infancy, power rests firmly with the league itself. Fusion investor Horowitz and his fellow MLS financial backers do not actually own their franchises. Instead what these investors are purchasing is a chunk of the league itself -- in Horowitz's case a $20 million stake. Because of this arrangement, the MLS -- in particular its commissioner Doug Logan -- holds extraordinary powers. The commissioner is often referred to by fans as "God Logan."

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.

The second goal by the Mutiny, 28 minutes into the first half, leaves the Afusionados silent -- for a few minutes. It is particularly devastating because Valderrama gets the assist, delivering a delicate through-ball to Jefferson Gottardi.

The highlights of the match (from an Afusionado standpoint) come in quick succession. Valderrama is tossed from the game for a hard tackle from behind on Henry Gutierrez.

"APibe concha tu madre!"
Then the Fusion actually scores a goal, a diving header by Serna. Shortly afterward, two of the Afusionados are escorted out of the stadium by Tampa Bay police for hurling beer at the linesman after what was deemed a particularly egregious call. "Every fucking time we go to Tampa Bay, at least two people get thrown out," Estevez says later. The Fusion loses, 2-1. In the ensuing weeks the team will split two more games with Tampa Bay.

The bus ride home goes no better than the Fusion's season. By 2:30 a.m., the 25 Afusionados are wandering the parking lot of a 7-Eleven somewhere near Fort Myers. The desecrated husk of a tire lies next to the bus, having blown out along the highway. A rangy, blond-haired guy from Fort Myers Travel Plaza is working a lug wrench.

It will be a long ride home.
But not as long as the Fusion's season.

Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address:
Paul_Demko@newtimesbpb.com

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