Action Is More Heated Off the Field
Last week should have been a good one for Doug Logan, but it didn’t turn out that way.
Blame Tony Meola, blame Clark Hunt, blame Carlos Valderrama, blame Ivo Wortmann. Just don’t blame Major League Soccer’s commissioner.
And certainly don’t blame Ron Newman, who Monday was coach of the Kansas City Wizards and Friday was sitting at home staring at his TV screen--65 and no longer employed.
And that is about as shabby a way for MLS to have allowed a hall-of-fame coach to end his career as any that could be imagined.
The week began well enough April 10, when Logan found himself one of the 27,311 in attendance at Soldier Field for the Chicago Fire’s home opener. That gave MLS bragging rights for a while. Only 26,243 had turned out for the Chicago Cubs’ opener.
But the game against the Dallas Burn ended in a 0-0 tie, becoming one of six MLS games last week that went to the shootout. That led to a deluge of criticism in the media and an almost unanimous call for the tiebreaker system to be abolished.
Logan shrugged it off, saying it was mostly “those with note pads in their hands”--in other words, reporters--who were complaining, not the fans.
Not as easy to shrug off was the deplorable condition of Soldier Field, where the playing surface resembled a cow pasture spray-painted green. Both coaches were furious.
“I don’t want this to come out like an excuse, but the quality of the field was very disappointing,” Fire Coach Bob Bradley said after the loss to Dallas. “In the four years I’ve been in MLS, that field was in worse shape than any we’ve played on.”
That was mild compared to Burn Coach Dave Dir’s assessment.
“To call that a soccer field, that’s pretty embarrassing,” Dir told the Chicago Tribune. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever played on--worse than any high school field, worse than any club field. It’s an embarrassment to Chicago that the champions of the league have to play on it.”
Logan said the Chicago park district has been put on notice to improve the condition of the field or risk being in violation of its contract with MLS. “We’ve voiced our concerns very loudly,” he said. “. . . I was very disturbed. . . . They’re not holding up their end of the bargain.”
Said Peter Wilt, the Fire’s general manager: “It’s April in Chicago and we’re 20 feet from the lake. We’ll work hard to get it in as good shape as we can.”
Meanwhile, in San Jose, where the Wizards were losing their fourth game in a row, Meola was plunging the knife into Newman’s back.
Acquired, along with Alexi Lalas, from the New York-New Jersey MetroStars to give the slumping Wizards a lift, Meola suffered a knee injury before playing even one game and is sidelined for four months. But even that disappointment does not account for, nor excuse, his comments.
“You’ve got to question when players are being moved around out of position, when there’s no discussion of an opponent leading up to a game,” Meola said, taking Newman’s coaching methods to task. “We didn’t talk at all about San Jose before the game. That’s not the way to prepare.”
The English-born Newman, who has won more games and championships than any other professional coach in the U.S., and whose coaching career stretches back 30 years to the Dallas Tornado of the old North American Soccer League and also includes such teams as the Los Angeles Skyhawks, San Diego Sockers and Fort Lauderdale Strikers, was astounded by Meola’s remarks.
“As a young player, I wouldn’t have even thought to do something like that,” he told the Kansas City Star. “Have you ever heard me abuse a player in the newspaper or in public? I’d never do that.
“He has no [coaching] qualifications. Not only does he not know the game well enough, but he hasn’t been here. . . . There’s no excuse for that. I’m not surprised, but I’m disgusted.”
Within days, Newman had resigned. At least, that was the official line. But did he step down voluntarily or was he pushed?
“It was a mutual understanding,” said Clark Hunt, who runs the Wizards for his father, Lamar Hunt. “Ron knew there needed to be a change to turn around the fortunes of this team.
“Ron had a great track record. Unfortunately, we got into a rut where we were losing, and losing became a habit. I don’t think it was any one thing, just a set of circumstances that culminated in an 0-4 start this year.”
But 0-4, and even last season’s 12-20 mark, is meaningless when compared to Newman’s career record of 753-497-27. Or compared to his 13 league championships, all his coach-of-the-year awards and his U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame induction in 1992.
Newman, as well known for his quips as for producing winning teams, could have turned it around. And even had he failed, he should at least have been allowed a more dignified exit. Newman did not even attend the news conference announcing his “resignation.”
“I don’t think anyone’s more disappointed than he is,” said Lamar Hunt, a close family friend who launched Newman’s professional coaching career in the late 1960s. “It’s a very emotional time for him.”
Newman’s departure leaves Dallas’ Dir as the only original MLS coach still in place.
Just how much of a factor Meola’s criticism was in the ouster of Newman is debatable, but Logan said the U.S national team goalkeeper would not be fined or otherwise disciplined.
“We’re not going to sanction Tony, who says what’s on his mind,” Logan said. “His remarks were strong. Ron’s response was equally strong. . . . At the end of the day, we have a First Amendment . . . Before Tony puts that [Kansas City] uniform on, there will be consequences, but they won’t be from the league.”
In other words, don’t look for Newman’s eventual successor--former assistant Ken Fogarty is in charge for now--to cut Meola any slack when the keeper returns.
Newman versus Meola was only the first half of a coach-versus-player doubleheader last week. The other drama was played out in Florida and involved fiery Fusion Coach Wortmann of Brazil and mop-haired midfielder Valderrama, a Logan favorite.
This fight went to Wortmann, who benched the Colombian star and put him on the trading block.
“I’m the boss, the chief, and I’m not scared to make this decision,” Wortmann told the Miami Herald. “If I have to start the players who make the most money per month, then what am I doing here? I am trying to make a competitive team, and Carlos doesn’t fit in my plans.”
Wortmann, who joined the Fusion midway through 1998 and took it to the playoffs, prefers a fast-tempo game, not the languid approach favored by the 37-year-old Valderrama.
The problem is that Valderrama has the respect of many players and they tend to listen to what he says on the field rather than what Wortmann preaches from the sideline.
“We aren’t penetrating, and we aren’t fouling,” Wortmann complained. “The other players pass the ball back and forth to Valderrama, like they are the Globetrotters. They are watching the ball instead of fighting and winning balls. We’re playing soft. We don’t have the defensive midfielders behind Carlos to play his style. The guys are playing around Valderrama instead of my game, and I cannot coach like this.”
Wortmann said the former South American player of the year “can watch from the stands with the fans, or the league can trade him.”
Valderrama’s response was equally cutting.
“I think Ivo is nervous,” he told the Herald. “He is lacking experience coaching at the pro level and so he is overdramatizing the situation. Any team can lose [three] games. It happens. I am not the problem. The problem is that the team hasn’t concentrated for 90 minutes. There are positive ways to change for the better instead of this way, with anger and negativity.”
Valderrama was almost traded last season after a spat with Wortmann, but the differences were patched up. Not this time.
“The league decides where Valderrama plays,” Valderrama said. “If the league tells Valderrama to go to Japan, Valderrama goes to Japan. I’m happy here with the Fusion, but if I don’t play, then I have a problem. I came here to play, not to vacation and go to the beach. We have beaches in Colombia.”
Which is where Logan might be wishing he were these days.