Is This a Fútbol Town?

As Miami plays political footsie with the first-place Fusion, the U.S. Soccer Federation prepares to give the boot to Fort Lauderdale's hopes for a national training center

"I feel that Fort Lauderdale is where it should be," Rodger says. "But we will lose it to L.A. for political and money reasons." The estimated cost of the proposed Fort Lauderdale complex is between $30 and $40 million.

But L.A. is L.A., and like everything else in the City of Angels, the rumor mill has been grinding its wheels and making announcements that it is to be the future home of the U.S. Men's National Team. The Los Angeles Times ran several stories about a monstrous $112 million proposed sports complex on the campus of California State University at Dominguez Hills. Of that sum, most of which will be fronted by billionaire businessman Phil Anschutz, $34 million will be allocated to the Los Angeles Galaxy soccer team, and according to the Times, the national training center of the U.S. Men's Team: "The soccer portion of the sports complex is intended to serve as a permanent home and national training center for the U.S. Soccer Federation's national teams, including the men's and women's national, Olympic and age-group teams."

Moorhouse, for his part, says an official winner has yet to be announced. But inside sources who prefer to remain anonymous say that, while an official decision as to which city gets the spoils is still pending, L.A. will prevail. The reasons include the size of the L.A. market and its vast Mexican-American fan base. Rodger has resigned himself to this outcome but states that the Anschutz factor will truly tip the scales.

Where have you gone, El Pibe?
Miami Herald
Where have you gone, El Pibe?


Read Related New Times Story, Total ConFusion

"I mean, let's be honest," he says, "Philip Anschutz, who is going to get it, owns three MLS teams [Denver, Chicago, and Los Angeles] and has put a lot of money into soccer. Not that Horowitz hasn't. But there's a big difference."

Moorhouse remains noncommittal: "You could argue either way on both cities. There's no negatives in either one. Right now, it's about getting all the ducks in a row in terms of both proposals in front of our executive committee." This was scheduled to happen two weeks ago.

But if Rodger is right, Fort Lauderdale has really already lost that battle. And on another front, it seems the Orange Bowl games that the Fusion insists were feel-good, warm-and-fuzzy affairs could mark the rekindling of a fight that Fort Lauderdale thought it had already won.

Back in late summer 1997, the City of Miami was using the Orange Bowl to court the MLS expansion franchise that the league had awarded to Horowitz and his fellow investors. Not a bad idea, considering Miami has one of the most diverse Hispanic populations in the nation. While most of the largest individual groups -- Cubans, Nicaraguans, Puerto Ricans, Dominicans -- tend to be more enthusiastic about baseball, there are plenty of fútbol-first Hispanics as well: Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Colombians, to say nothing of the many thousands of Haitian, Jamaican, and Trinidadian soccer fans. And while Miami might not be the best-run city in the area, it has by far the best brand name -- one that the new team embraced, dubbing itself the Miami Fusion in the summer of 1997.

But negotiations with Miami broke down in September 1997, when Mayor Joe Carollo insisted that the Fusion sign a ten-year lease with the Orange Bowl. This seemed ridiculous to the Fusion leadership. That's when Horowitz, the Fusion's lead investor, stepped up and took command of the situation.

The organization empowered Horowitz to complete negotiations with local public officials in Fort Lauderdale. The lease at Lockhart -- six years with three five-year extension options -- was a better deal than the team could get for the OB. Plus Lockhart was a smaller, more intimate setting. In its first year, the Fusion would have been swimming in empty seats in Miami.

One of the founding fathers of Cellular One, Horowitz bankrolled $4 million worth of improvements to Lockhart in December 1997. (He has subsequently ponied up another million.) The former high-school playing field had been the home field for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League from 1977 to 1983. With only six months until game day, the workers scrambled to have seats and skyboxes in place for the opening kick on March 15, 1998.

Despite the team's distance from its namesake city, the league still hoped to lure Miami-Dade County's South and Central American populations into the stands. To that end the league sent one of its biggest international stars, Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama, to the Fusion.

When he was in his prime, the man they called "El Pibe" (the Kid) was perhaps the best playmaker in the world. By the time the MLS was founded, he was well past his prime but still a slick-enough passer to dissect the defenses of the fledgling MLS -- and of course, he still had that trademark mop of bleached-blond locks.

But Valderrama also happened to be a petulant, whiny prima donna. He had plenty of talent but not enough to back up his lip. The aging Kid was too outspoken for then-head coach Ivo Wortmann, who benched him in July 1998. Not long thereafter Valderrama started publicly bashing the organization, and he was ridden out of Fort Lauderdale on a rail.

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