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
By Frank Owen
With five minutes remaining until game time, a traffic jam outside the Orange Bowl makes everything come to a halt on Miami's NW Seventh Street. At the main entrance to the parking lots that surround the historic stadium, two men bark conflicting orders to the fans. And to complicate matters even more, one speaks English, the other Spanish, and neither is bilingual.
Now cars are backed up in both directions for about 100 yards with a barrage of sound coming from factory stereos. In fact the music is almost as varied as the cars themselves. From the plushest 2002 Lexus RX 300s to aging Chevy Caprices to Vespas trying to sneak through the gaps in the rusting chainlink fence, the fans gather here tonight for a momentous occasion: the first Major League Soccer game in the Orange Bowl's 66-year history.
The Miami Fusion has characterized this event as a sort of "thank you" to the team's Miami fans for trekking north to Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale for home soccer games. But the drive to the OB is plenty onerous; the fans queued up to park seem downright edgy. As the team introductions echo over the stadium's PA system and emanate throughout Little Havana, a thunderous roar arises from the arena. This makes the people sitting in traffic very anxious, as if they're missing action, and they let passersby know of their irritation.
The horns start blaring; the sounds of the different makes and models, coupled with the sounds of the fans 100 yards away in the stadium, only serve to build the anticipation.
As the late arrivals straggle through turnstiles; past the chipping, fading, powder blue paint on the steel beams; and up the crisscrossing ramps into general-admission seating, they soon discover that the huge, roaring crowd they heard from the streets is an aural mirage. Slightly fewer than 15,000 people occupy the stadium -- which packs in as many as 65,000 for Miami Hurricanes college football games. But that's one of the OB's greatest virtues: Its configuration and rattletrap steel-beam construction combine to turn the place into a giant echo chamber. Even this smallish crowd rocks the place to its foundation.
Patches of blue, white, and yellow (the Fusion team colors) are visible throughout the stadium, but the faces of the spectators present an even broader spectrum of hues -- in marked contrast to the crowd at, say, a Miami Dolphins game at Pro Player Stadium.
Of course the Dolphins used to play here; most Americans, even those as close as Broward County, know only the American football history of the Orange Bowl: the 'Fins, the 'Canes, the Orange Bowl game itself. All but the 'Canes have left now, but nevertheless this remains one of the nation's premiere venues for the sport the rest of the world considers "real football." The 1996 Olympics highlighted the Orange Bowl as America's soccer sanctuary, as did the Copa America bracket a couple of years back, in which some Honduran fans went berserk over bad officiating and threw chairs onto the field.
Despite all the empty seats, soccer seems a perfect fit in the venue on this clear, breezy, moon-over-Miami evening: an international game in an international city. And for the first time in its brief history, the Fusion is actually good, with a 10-1-2 record heading into the Orange Bowl for tonight's game -- a far cry from where they were at this point last season when they finished below .500. But that was before the team handed over the head coaching job to Fort Lauderdale soccer legend Ray Hudson in midseason last year.
Hudson is an aficionado of the game before he's a skipper, and he echoes the fans' anticipation and sentiments before taking on the Columbus Crew at the Orange Bowl:
"We'll be hanging around for the rest of the year," Hudson says in his heavy central England accent (which is closer to a Scottish brogue than to the prim and proper diction of the Buckingham Palace crowd). "No one's bangin' their drum from the top of tall buildings yelling, "We are the deal.' We are just an improved team that is lookin' to be more improved. We're hard on ourselves. We're not satisfied yet, and that's just the way we are.
"At this point in the season, I don't want to play this game at the Orange Bowl. We've been doin' so well at Lockhart that I don't want to blow it."
With a record of 12 wins, 3 losses and 4 ties at press time, Fort Lauderdale's only big-league team is enjoying a storybook year. Yet the City of Fort Lauderdale one day may look back on 2001 as the beginning of the end of its reign as soccer central. Despite the team's loud declarations that Lockhart Stadium will remain the Fusion's home, officials from the City of Miami hope that the two Orange Bowl games this year might be the foot in the door that would allow it to wrest the team away from its northern neighbor. Even worse Fort Lauderdale also seems to have lost out on a major project that would have cemented its reputation as the epicenter of bigtime soccer not only in South Florida but in the entire United States.