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The Fusion's Ray of Hope

The Fusion would not seem like quite as much of a civic prize if they weren't so flat-out good. The majority of the soccer world attributes the Fusion's dramatic 180-degree turnaround to a key change in administration: the hiring of Ray Hudson, the 56-year-old elder statesman of Fort Lauderdale's soccer, as head coach.

In 1977 Hudson was among the band of bumblebee-striped footballers from England who were shipped across the pond and hypodermic-needled into the heart of American sport. These were the foot soldiers of the North American Soccer League.

In 1968 the United Soccer Association and the National Professional Soccer League merged to form the NASL. It was a good idea in theory: an outdoor league showcasing the best players from all over the world.

Although soccer has long been one of those sports that Americans play as little tykes, it has never attracted the cream of America's athletic crop. Not so across the pond.

"As an English kid, there's one game and there's one ball," Hudson says. "That's where it begins and ends. After school you had to stake your space on the field, because everyone was playin'. There was grass, and there was a ball. We used to play in the alleys when we couldn't get in the parks, and that environment really honed your skills."

These were the alleys and blue-collar streets of Newcastle, England. And these hard-hitting kids booed the cars that drove on their gaming streets. It wasn't all that uncommon for a 'baller to fire a rock or an empty beer bottle at one of these cars.

"Everybody's dream was to be a soccer player," he says, "a professional footballer. I come from a place where it's not a sport; it's a religion. The soccer team was a factor in your day-to-day family life. It was religion. In Newcastle you go to St. James's park, and that was our cathedral. You worshiped there."

Hudson was one of the local standouts. But that didn't necessarily mean he was going to get the call from the big leagues. Every English kid has dreams of grandeur, of playing in front of the 60,000-plus fans who attend every single game. Sellout is the only word a British soccer box office knows.

He did indeed get the call -- at age 16, the American equivalent of getting drafted into the NBA right out of high school. It happens, just not very often. What heightened this experience was that the call came from Newcastle United. He played his first professional game against Stoke City at St. James Arena in Newcastle. His first two touches made the crowd go nuts. This was Hudson's fiery baptism. "This avalanche of sound, just the roar that welled up from the stands as I came runnin' on, it's like having four massive fuckin' boom box speakers on each side of your head. And I remember puttin' the brakes on me feet and thinkin', What the hell is that? It takes a while to get used to.

"I remember standin' at a urinal before I went out to St. James that day, and there was a little window way above in the locker room that was for ventilation, and it ventilated out to the main streets. I remember hearing the fans, and me hands were shakin', you know; I wasn't even able to piss. The lads were great. It was wonderful."

Hudson wasn't so bad himself. A midfielder with exceptionally quick feet, he could split defenders, rack up the assists, and dribble circles around his opponent in one-on-one play. "The darlings of the crowed were always the footballers. The skilled players. Newcastle has always had a love affair with skilled players."

He played with Newcastle United in the English Premier League from 1973 to 1977. While Hudson was an all-star and a standout, the team kept switching coaches. In four years it had four different skippers. Each time the leadership changed, the players would have to prove themselves again. Hudson speaks of a tremendous sense of insecurity. Even though his past performances had proved that he came to play, he says that he never had a permanent seat at the table.

One of the team's managers told him frankly one day that, though he was one of the team's best, he wasn't getting the playing time he deserved. At the same time, Newcastle United didn't want to trade him. What about a working holiday in the States? Pelé was already here, and the NASL was starting to draw some money. Hudson remembers asking where he would be sent, and the manager said Fort Lauderdale.

"I'd never heard of it," Hudson recalls. "I thought it was an Indian outpost. I'd heard of Fort Worth, but I thought, 'Fort,' what the fuck is that all about? Then he said, 'It's close to Miami.' And I remember smilin' and [saying], 'That's good.'"

The initial deal was for five months and significantly more money than the Brits paid their players. Plus he was a 20-year-old single lad. South Florida in the late 1970s was not a bad place for 20-year-old professional athletes to reside. This was, essentially, a working vacation.

He had a lot to learn about American culture, let alone the South Florida version thereof. Hudson remembers going through U.S. Customs when he got off the airplane and immediately having a problem communicating.

"When I got to the Miami airport that first time, the immigration fella says, 'What are you here for?' I says, 'I'm a footballer' [pronounced futbolla]. He says, 'I'll ask you one more time, what are you here for?' And I says, 'I'm a footballer, I'm a professional footballer.' The guy gets upset with me and tells me to wait a minute. He brings over his supervisor. 'Now tell him what you just told me.' I says, 'I'm a footballer! Or soccer, I'm a soccer player!' They start laughin'. The fella thought I said, 'I'm here to please a hooker.'"

And he might have been, because right out of the gates, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers put him up in a hotel on Las Olas within stumbling distance from the Elbo Room -- during spring break.

"I come from Newcastle, which is comparable to the Russian front," he says. "It's not a pretty place. It's a cold, hard town. We're a bunch of shipbuilders. Here the girls were tan and beautiful, and with my accent the girls were melting in me arms."

While the social scene was unquestionably better here than in Britain, the soccer wasn't up to British professional standards. The team played at Lockhart, but it was a high-school stadium. That did not stop Hudson from having a stellar career. That five-month vacation turned into a career. Hudson played 197 games, scored 44 goals, 99 assists (which makes him third in NASL history) and was a five-time all-star.

The NASL ultimately failed in its quest to compete with the great European and South American leagues, drowning in a sea of red ink in 1984. Hudson continued playing for the Strikers in Minneapolis and later in Fort Lauderdale again in the American Pro Soccer League until 1991. After retiring from soccer, the footballer dabbled in a few different professions. He was a professional pool cleaner for a spell, which, he says, he loved. Hudson is a very personable man. He's the type you hope is drinking alone at the bar when you arrive, because once he starts talking, you know he has a good yarn to spin.

He wanted to get back into the game, though, and stewarded the Hollywood Wildcats youth program from 1993 to 1997. That later turned into a head coaching gig at University High School at Nova Southeastern in 1998 and finally, a job as a broadcaster for the Miami Fusion that same year.

In the middle of the miserable 2000 campaign, Fusion GM Hamilton made one of the gutsiest decisions ever made in professional sports. He took an ex­soccer great with only elementary and high-school coaching experience and made him the ringleader of a professional team.

"I had the familiarity with the team," he says. "I knew and saw what was wrong. But that's armchair coachin'. If it hadn't been for Doug [Hamilton], I mean, who had the balls to make that move? I wouldn't have done it. He knew I had the knowledge and ability and insight to affect this team positively. But to actually give me the coaching job... Do you know the wealth of people he had to choose from? That was fuckin' enormous. How the hell he did it, I have no fuckin' idea."


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