Soccer

After a history of heartbreaks, Miami awaits Beckham’s MLS launch with hope

Fans cheer on Miami’s first MLS team, the Miami Fusion in a parking lot on March 13, 1998.
Fans cheer on Miami’s first MLS team, the Miami Fusion in a parking lot on March 13, 1998. Herald Staff

On the eve of the long-awaited launch of David Beckham’s Major League Soccer team in Miami, I can’t help but think back to July 8, 1997, when I traveled to New York City for the official launch of Miami’s first MLS team — the Miami Fusion.

That was nearly 21 years ago, the same year Harry Potter was published, Titanic was a box office hit, the Marlins won their first World Series and Princess Diana died.

The Fusion rollout took place in an 18th-floor ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Cobi Jones and Mark Chung, then MLS players and members of the U.S. national team, were special guests and modeled the newly unveiled Fusion T-shirts. The team name and logo was revealed that day — a futuristic blue and yellow oval with the word “Fusion” over a sunburst

“The name Fusion is explosive and powerful, and it symbolizes the unification of Miami’s multinational population,” team owner Ken Horowitz, the Palm Beach cellular phone mogul, said at the news conference. “It is a symbol that soccer fans of all nationalities will gather in Miami to see a dynamic team.”

Then-MLS commissioner Doug Logan added: “We want to build our fan base from all three counties, from Latin fans and youth groups. We’re going to reach as far north as North Palm Beach and Jupiter. We want to attract pockets of fans up and down the I-95 corridor. We see Miami as a complex market, similar to D.C., New York and L.A.”

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The Miami Fusion celebrate a victory over the Kansas City Wizards in the first round playoff game at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale on September 22, 2001. JOE RIMKUS JR Miami Herald Staff

Logan complained about Miami politics slowing down the franchise startup: “It’s no coincidence that this event is being held after the recent Miami elections. It was a long, bumpy road with political side-trips, but the politics are behind us and it’s just soccer ahead.”

(Long, bumpy road? Political side-trips? Hmmm … sound familiar, Mr. Beckham?)

The plan was for the Fusion to begin play in March 1998 at the Orange Bowl.

But this is Miami.

A feud was brewing between Horowitz and then-Miami Mayor Joe Carrollo over the stadium lease agreement. It got so contentious that Horowitz, who paid $20 million for the team, began “exploring other options.”

He wound up taking his team to Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium, even though it was not in central Miami, as MLS wanted, and it required a $4 million facelift to increase seating from 7,500 to 20,000 and add 5,000 parking spaces.

On Nov. 4, 1997, Carlos “Cacho” Cordoba was hired as coach. Two days later, the Fusion selected their first 12 players in the Expansion Draft, including David Vaudreuil, Kris Kelderman, Joey Martinez, FIU goalkeeper Jeff Cassar, Coral Park High grad Nelson Vargas, Cle Kooiman, Matt Kmosko, Scott Budnick and Wade Webber (one of the most intelligent athletes I have encountered in 32 years)

The club then signed Colombian mop-topped star midfielder Carlos “El Pibe” Valderrama, who became the face of the franchise. A crowd of 20,450 showed up for the inaugural game, a 2-0 loss to D.C. United, and the future looked bright.

But two years later, despite talented players such as Diego Serna and Alex Pineda Chacon, attendance had dropped to 7,460. Charismatic Ray Hudson, a former Fort Lauderdale Striker and radio announcer, took over as coach in 2000, and his team won the 2001 Supporters Shield (best record) and reached the league semifinals. Attendance grew to 11,177 per game. It wasn’t enough.

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Soccer fanatics, all from Colombia, with painted faces, cheer for the Miami Fusion soccer team in Lockhart Stadium, for the opening games. CM Guerrero Miami Herald

The team folded in January 2002. The club had tried everything to drum up interest, including a puppet mascot named Pepe Locuaz, who it turned out cost more than the annual salary of some of the players.

Over the next 16 years, I have witnessed several incarnations of professional soccer in South Florida, some more memorable than others, some flopping like well-trained Italian forwards.

I was at Tropical Park on April 7, 2006, when a new second-tier club called Miami FC (not related to the current NASL team) welcomed Brazilian superstar Romario to the team. Romario, who was 40 at the time, pulled up in a Hummer stretch limousine as more than 150 reporters clamored to interview him. Romario didn’t last long, and neither did the team.

On Nov. 9, 2008, I wrote a long profile on a Bolivian-American telecommunications mogul named Marcelo Claure, who wanted to partner with FC Barcelona to raise $40 million to bring an MLS team to Miami. The headline read: “Born businessman selling soccer here; At 37, Marcelo Claure has succeeded in almost everything he’s tried. Now he hopes to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Miami.”

The plan was to play at Florida International University.

Claure said then: “This is where the heart of the soccer community is, in Miami-Dade, and we have to put the team where it is accessible to them. So many Latin Americans and Europeans live here, it doesn’t seem right that we don’t have a soccer team.’’

That deal never came to fruition. Ten years later, Claure is CEO of Sprint and a partner of Beckham’s in the new MLS venture.

On Jan. 14, 2015, I was in a ballroom at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, where Brazilian great Ronaldo was introduced as a part-owner of the new edition of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, once one of the glamor teams of the NASL in the 1970s and 1980s. There were talks of a new stadium to replace Lockhart, and a state-of-the-art youth academy.

Attendance slipped to a league-low 1,361, and the Strikers folded after the 2016 season.

Enter Miami FC, owned by deep-pocketed Italian sports media executive Riccardo Silva. In May of 2015, Silva announced he was partnering with Italian legend Paolo Maldini to bring an NASL team to Miami. The coach would be former Italian star Alessandro Nesta, one of the greatest defenders of all time. They would play at FIU Stadium, which Silva helped upgrade with a $3.7 million donation.

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Fans cheer on Miami’s first MLS team, the Miami Fusion in a parking lot on March 13, 1998. Alan Freund Herald Staff

Things went very well for Miami FC last year, as the team won both the Spring and Fall titles, reached the U.S. Open quarterfinals with two upsets of MLS teams, and made it to the league semifinals. They had a few crowds of 10,000 and averaged 5,147, which ranked second in NASL. But Silva is in a legal battle with U.S. Soccer over league structure, the NASL is down to five teams, the start of the 2018 season was moved from spring to August, and the future of the league is unclear.

And so, here we are again. Another launch. Another soccer icon coming to Miami to promote a team. Of course, this one is one of the most famous faces on the globe, and his partners include Claure, SoftBank Chairman Masayoshi Son, “American Idol” creator Simon Fuller, and brothers Jorge and Jose Mas, who are deeply entrenched in Miami and understand how to navigate its political jungle.

Unlike Horowitz, who invested $20 million in his team, this group intends to spend close to $300 million when all is said and done. Will history repeat itself? Let’s hope not.

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