Is This a Fútbol Town?
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.
On an overcast day in late June, the U.S. Men's National Team squeezes in a practice session between scattered showers, and lightning flashes intense enough that everyone on hand stands well clear of the metal bleachers flanking the practice field at the Hilton hotel in Sunrise.
This team is composed of the country's best players -- including Fusion stars Chris Henderson (midfielder), Carlos Llamosa (defender), Pablo Mastroeni (defender/midfielder), and Nick Rimando (goalie). They take the field and splash around in the standing water while head coach Bruce Arena barks orders at them. First the players stretch their legs. (With all the running they're about to do, this is perhaps the most important aspect of practice.) Then come some warm-ups: they jog around the field, they do jumping jacks and squat-thrusts. They kick the ball around for about 20 minutes to get the blood flowing, and then there's a scrimmage of sorts.
Two teams line up to play half-field soccer with particularly exhausting rules. Each team will try to "score" on the other team, but not by putting the ball into the goal. The offensive team must make ten passes to teammates without the ball being touched by the other side. If it's successful, that's a point. When the ball is intercepted, the count starts over. The game's to ten.
The men look professional in their Umbro uniforms, running circles around one another while kicking the ball extra hard on the wet field, ripping up bowling ball-size divots in the process. But aside from their threads, these guys look -- to the American sports fan's eye, anyway -- more like J. Crew models than professional athletes.
Until their recent 1-0 loss to Mexico City, the U.S. Men's National Team was undefeated for eight straight games; even after that loss, the team is still in a strong position to qualify for the 2002 World Cup in Korea and Japan.
When the Cup comes around every fourth year, it draws more international attention than the Super Bowl, the World Series, the Stanley Cup, and NBA Playoffs combined. If you're a sports fan (not necessarily a soccer fan), then you will more than likely tune in for the World Cup.
In 1994, the last time the World Cup was held in the United States, almost 95,000 people showed up for the finals match between Brazil and Italy. The total attendance for all of the World Cup USA matches was about 3.6 million.
The masses were treated to some exciting play, especially the U.S. team's surprising win over Colombia -- surprising because the United States had been an international soccer doormat for years. That particular game, coupled with the huge turnouts at games around the country, produced a façade for fat-cat businessmen around the country. The numbers and the U.S. World Cup team made it appear that there was demand for soccer in the U.S. The long-term impact of the 1994 World Cup was the formation of Major League Soccer a year later.
As encouraging as the 1994 World Cup was for the U.S. team, the 1998 World Cup in France was a complete disaster. The United States' dismal performance (lowlighted by a humiliating loss to Iran) placed the team 32nd of the 32 teams in the tournament.
Hoping to avoid a repeat performance four years later, the U.S. Soccer Federation in 1999 put a proposition on the table for every city in the country: Put together a proposal for a formal national training center for the U.S. Men's National Team. According to USSF spokesman Jim Moorhouse, more than 50 communities expressed interest. Observers of the process say that unofficially this is a two-horse race between Los Angeles and Fort Lauderdale.
Lockhart Stadium has always been part of Fort Lauderdale's allure to the USSF. While locals may remember the Lockhart of years past as just a high-school stadium with some metal bleachers and nighttime lighting, the place was recently given a facelift. It is now, according to many coaches and general managers around the league, one of the best places to host a game. Factor in that the bleachers come all the way down to the field, and you have one of the greatest home-field advantages in sports, seating a possible 20,450 "Afusionados." It wasn't cheap -- a $5 million facelift, with absolutely no cost to the taxpayers. But if you've ever caught a game at Lockhart, you'd agree that it was well worth every penny.
The original decision on the location of the national training center was supposed to be announced in December 2000. The USSF has yet to declare a winner, but that hasn't stopped hometown newspapers from engaging in some educated guessing. The Sun-Sentinel ran a couple of stories over the last year and a half speculating that the scales were tipping in favor of Fort Lauderdale. Fusion investor and operator Kenneth Horowitz was instrumental in attracting the USSF to South Florida, initially planning to put the training complex behind Lockhart Stadium.
Eddie Rodger has joined Horowitz in his efforts to lure the USSF to town. The former general manager of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of the North American Soccer League, Rodger now runs Kicks International, a soccer-marketing company in Fort Lauderdale. He was the one who convinced the Hilton to install a regulation soccer field -- the one on which the U.S. Men's National Team practiced.
"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.
"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.
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 Herald the 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."
At least it will for the next three years. That's the remaining lease the Fusion has with the stadium, with three options for five more years apiece. After that, at least in theory, Miami may be able to tilt the scales.
Fort Lauderdale Parks and Recreation special facilities director Vince Gizzi acknowledges Miami's ploy to filch the Fusion. But he's completely unfazed. In fact he goes on the offensive, saying that the Fusion should drop the Miami moniker altogether.
"We know they played at the Orange Bowl, and we think they were just looking for exposure," Gizzi says. "But Horowitz keeps spending money here, and when you look at it, there's just no reason to move."
The Fusion brings some valuable revenue to both the City of Fort Lauderdale and the School Board of Broward County, from which the team leases the Lockhart land. Gizzi doesn't have a hard figure, but comparatively speaking the Baltimore Orioles bring in about $25 million for the six weeks that they're in Fort Lauderdale for spring training. That includes hotels, restaurants, ticket sales, and concessions. If that's only six weeks, it can be inferred that an entire soccer season generates considerably more flow.
"I know Miami would love to have a soccer team of their own," he says, "but to tell you the truth, I haven't felt threatened. The Orange Bowl will continue to look for a tenant to keep them in business. But we have a better, more intimate venue in Lockhart. And we have a lot of soccer history in Fort Lauderdale.
"Personally I'd like to see them change their name to the Fort Lauderdale Fusion because they essentially are. It would help with the visibility of the city also."
Anything would help. On July 18, in a home match against the Chicago Fire -- the team with the second-best record in the MLS -- the Fusion drew little more than 6000 fans. Three days later against the New England Revolution, that number was even smaller.
Two days later Miami's Abrams had a working lunch with Fusion GM Hamilton to discuss how many games will be played in Miami next year. Hamilton says they reviewed this year's games and left the door open for future conversations on future matches. "As we look at the bigger picture of what we want over the next 18 months, we'll look to see whether something at the Orange Bowl makes sense," he says. He adds that they did not agree on how many, if any, Fusion games will be played at the OB next year.
The Orange Bowl game June 30 was a nail biter. While the Fusion took a commanding 4-1 lead -- thanks to some sharp passing and one dazzling goal by midfielder Preki -- the Columbus Crew fought back in front of a hostile crowd, penetrating the Fusion's depleted back line with distressing regularity in the second half. But when time expired, the Fusion was still on top, four goals to three.
Coach Hudson was his usual ebullient self after the game, lighting up the press conference with sound bite after sound bite:
"You can see why they call this the Magic City."
"The Orange Bowl was a fantastic venue. If God were a soccer fan, he would play on this field."
"This was one of those nights when the Fusion was littered with courage. It was just pure balls."
"I don't want to say [the Fusion's performance] is what champions are made of, but I just did."
When pressed with the question about whether or not the Orange Bowl would serve as a better venue than Lockhart, the stadium in which Hudson built his stateside career, he pooh-poohed the Bowl idea.
"Lockhart is my home," Hudson said after the game. "But the Orange Bowl, this was a stadium for footballin' tonight."
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