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The Valderrama problem only made the team's mediocrity more painful. In two seasons three different management teams were imported to reshape the franchise or at least to make it a .500 team. They neither won games nor won over the South Florida soccer faithful. The Fusion has averaged fewer than 10,000 people in attendance per game, while the rest of the league has averaged about 11,115. Fusion average attendance is up to 12,200 this year -- which still ranks them a disappointing 10th of 12 teams in the league.
In these underwhelming numbers, some leaders in the City of Miami see a second chance. Miami's director of public facilities, Christina Abrams, says that the bitter contract disputes between the City of Miami and the Fusion a few years ago are a distant memory. "We certainly didn't hold any hard feelings," she says. "And [the Fusion was] always open to the idea of playing at the Orange Bowl." In February 2000, Abrams discussed with the city planner's chief of staff, Genaro "Chip" Iglesias, and City Commissioner Joe Sanchez the possibility of getting the team into the Orange Bowl for a couple of games this year, much like the NFL's Green Bay Packers used to play a game or two in Milwaukee. Hamilton met with Iglesias and Abrams earlier this season and started exploring the possibilities of Orange Bowl games -- for this year and beyond. The two games this year were the result of those meetings.
Sanchez started pumping up the first game weeks in advance. He saturated Spanish-language radio with pregame hype and made many cameos at bodegas throughout the city, all the while making it clear that the Fusion-Crew matchup would not be the game's only competitive aspect.
"We'll beat the Lockhart numbers, mark my words," Sanchez crowed to The Miami Heraldthe day before the historic game, "even if I have to bring in people from off the streets." Sanchez recognizes that Lockhart is the Fusion's home right now but says that Miami appearances should nevertheless be incorporated into the team's future.
"We're excited to hold a Major League Soccer event at the historic Orange Bowl," Sanchez said. "We have had a lot of success when it comes to soccer at the Orange Bowl. We brought in a large crowd at the Olympics, and we had almost a sellout when Jamaica played Haiti. The venue is there for soccer, and we all know that soccer is an international sport. Of course we know that this is only two [Fusion] games at the Orange Bowl, but maybe this will open up a wave for more Gold Cups to come to Miami or maybe Miami having its own professional soccer team."
Abrams can clearly see a future for Fusion soccer at the Orange Bowl. While most Miami officials measure their words carefully about an "agenda" to get the Fusion permanently, Abrams makes no bones about it.
"We've been courting them for several years," she says. "We tried to make their experience at the Orange Bowl as pleasant as possible, because we want them to play at the Orange Bowl. We think that's where they belong, and we think that's where they'll do better."
Abrams is optimistic that one day the Fusion will call Miami home in body as well as in name. Her goal is to bring them there for the long haul, she says, and she plans to do this by enticing the Miami fans with more Orange Bowl games. "I want them to play half their season here," Abrams says. "I think that would work out very well for them because those people that prefer to see them in Broward will have the option to do that, and those people that want to see them in Dade will have that option also."
The two Orange Bowl games drew approximately 15,000 and 22,000 spectators respectively. So by numbers alone, Miami may be a better spot. After all, a good chunk of the fans who attend games at Lockhart drive up from Miami anyway.
That's not to mention that the Orange Bowl, with its imposing size and storied history, makes Lockhart look smalltime. Abrams says of Lockhart, "It's an amateur venue. It doesn't have the amenities of a stadium like the Orange Bowl. It doesn't have the field."
Hamilton, though, categorically strikes down any chance of the Fusion turning tail and heading south. "I'd be lying to say I wasn't a little disappointed with the crowds that first night at the Orange Bowl," Hamilton says. "We were expecting a little more. That 20,000 we drew for the second game wasn't for us. It was for the international game [a friendly match between Ecuador and Honduras] behind us. It wasn't our crowd."
Hamilton doesn't think the Orange Bowl would necessarily be a better stadium than Lockhart for either the fans or the players. "Lockhart's home," Hamilton declares. "Put that in big, bold print. I don't want it lost. Lockhart's home. It's a great venue for us. It's soccer-specific. MLS needs to be in stadiums that encourage and create the atmosphere that's needed to draw and maintain fans. And Lockhart does that for us."