Total ConFusion

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"In the end Horowitz had the final say," says Stillitano. "In professional sports owners always have the final say."

Kick! editor Jamie Trecker and others say that Horowitz's soccer inexperience (he made his money in the cellular telephone business) does not bode well for the team's future. "You've got ownership who clearly don't know what they're doing," Trecker says.

(Horowitz declined to be interviewed for this article.)
Adds Rodger, who worked as a consultant for the team when it was just getting off the ground: "You've got a non-soccer person that has been very successful in all his business endeavors, and all of sudden he is not having success -- so panic has taken over."

The debilitating problems of the Fusion are not unknown to the MLS at large. In its fourth year of operation, MLS continues to hemorrhage money -- about $60 million in its first three years -- and to struggle to fill the stands. It has made great strides in some cities, like Columbus, where a brand-new, soccer-only stadium has energized fans. But it has faltered in others, including Los Angeles, where attendance dropped off dramatically this year.

The league has tweaked the international game of football in hopes of making it more palatable to American sports fans. In the belief that Americans cannot handle the ambiguity of a tie, MLS instituted a shootout. If a game is deadlocked at the end of regulation, each team gets five attempts to score from 35 yards out. MLS Teams get three points for a flat-out victory but just one point for a shootout win.

MLS also instituted a multiround playoff system that is closer in format to American sports leagues than to other soccer leagues -- where titles are usually won solely through regular-season contests. And unlike soccer matches all over the world, in which the official game time is known only to the referee on the field, MLS keeps a running scoreboard clock.

According to the league, this brand of soccer is of the "entertaining, young, hip, and cool variety." But the end result of these changes has been to alienate some ardent soccer fans while making only modest inroads in attracting the generic American sports enthusiast.

Despite MLS' best efforts to Americanize football, the league is quite different in its business operations from the National Football League or Major League Baseball. In part because of the MLS' infancy, power rests firmly with the league itself. Fusion investor Horowitz and his fellow MLS financial backers do not actually own their franchises. Instead what these investors are purchasing is a chunk of the league itself -- in Horowitz's case a $20 million stake. Because of this arrangement, the MLS -- in particular its commissioner Doug Logan -- holds extraordinary powers. The commissioner is often referred to by fans as "God Logan."

Player contracts bind individuals to the league rather than to an individual team, with paychecks ranging from a paltry $24,000 a year up to $247,000. Some extraordinary players (in notoriety if not always skill) -- such as Carlos Valderrama and Kansas City Wizards defender Alexi Lalas -- receive additional money through marketing deals orchestrated by MLS.

The Valderrama debacle is an apt illustration of the league's control over individual franchises. When the Fusion failed to find a solution to the player-coach standoff in April, the MLS imposed one: Valderrama was unilaterally "reassigned" to the Tampa Bay Mutiny. Partly as compensation for the loss of Valderrama, the Fusion received three players via trade earlier this month: defender Arley Palacios and forwards Eric Wynalda and Welton. All will undoubtedly help the team (Welton and Palacios have started every game since the trade; Wynalda is out with an injury until at least August), but they lack the star power of Valderrama and his shock of hair to draw fans to the stadium.

It is about 6:30 p.m. on the first day of May, and 25 Afusionados are gathered in front of Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay. They are clad mostly in sky blue and yellow jerseys and shirts. They are singing -- as they have throughout the five-hour bus ride from Fort Lauderdale.

"!Pibe concha tu madre!" the group screams joyously, jumping up and down in time to the thumping pulse of the drum, faces aglow with the faux exuberance of alcohol and adrenaline. "APibe concha tu madre! APibe concha tu madre!"

The arriving Tampa Bay Mutiny fans look on with a mixture of bemusement and incomprehension.

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Paul Demko
Contact: Paul Demko