- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 10, 2002

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Inscription on the Statue of Liberty


In deciding not to sign English midfielder Paul Gascoigne last week, D.C. United coach Ray Hudson erred on the side of caution. But that hasn't always been the case with MLS during its seven-year history.

In its quest for box-office attractions and raising the level of play, the league's record of importing players from Europe and Latin America has been mixed, at best.

For every Carlos Valderrama, still going strong for Colorado as he approaches his 41st birthday, and Marco Etcheverry, a cornerstone of D.C. United since the league started in 1996, there is a Lothar Mattheus, veteran of five German World Cup teams who encountered nothing but injury and frustration with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, and a Luis Hernandez, a World Cup star from Mexico who was supposed to fill the seats for the Los Angeles Galaxy but acted as if he preferred to be somewhere else.

Hudson gives high praise to Ian Bishop, a steady, savvy veteran for his old Miami Fusion team, and to Lubos Kubik, Peter Nowak and Hristo Stoichkov, who made substantial contributions for the Chicago Fire. But the flip side includes the likes of former Brazilian World Cup mainstay Branco, who accumulated a deck full of red cards during a brief, ill-fated spin with the MetroStars and a tempestuous Bolivian named Juan Berthey Suarez, who clashed with then-D.C. United coach Bruce Arena and played in just a couple of games.

Some in the soccer world see the MLS as a haven for past-their-prime international players with large egos and bigger tempers, seeking to cash in on one last payday or simply enjoy the fruits of American life. Although Hudson acknowledged that some were indeed "shells of their former selves," he and others in the league strongly refute the general notion.

"I couldn't disagree more," Hudson said. "I think that perception is wholly cynical or misplaced. You don't let those bad decisions and bad players who were overrated [speak for the league]. It's not fair to tar the likes of Kubik and Bishop with the same brush."

Even though his team has gone 431 minutes without a goal and has endured four straight shutouts, Hudson believes he avoided one of those bad decisions by not signing Gascoigne.

Gascoigne's exploits both on and off the field have been described as legendary. At 35, his skills have eroded somewhat, but he showed he was in pretty good shape when he worked out. In terms of providing scoring and sex appeal, he might have been exactly what the club needed.

But in the end, Hudson said no.

When asked why, Hudson noted that Gascoigne would not come cheaply. It would be hard to fit his $7,500 per week salary this year and the maximum $260,000 next season under the league salary cap of $1.7 million. Hudson would probably have had to get rid of a quality player to make room.

Hudson also was asked whether Gascoigne's reputation as a world-class party boy and drinker (he spent some time in a Tucson, Ariz., rehab facility for alcohol abuse) was a factor. Not really, he said. But a few days later, Hudson said he had some major doubts about Gascoigne's influence on the younger players.

"In the last single opinion, it wasn't the right mixture," Hudson said. "I don't think Paul at this point would have been the right role-model all the way across the line. He would have been an inspiration off the field and a great character in the locker room, but there were other parts of his personality that I thought wouldn't be a positive influence."

Unlike its predecessor, the North American Soccer League, MLS emphasizes American participation and identity. The NASL, more than 25 years ago, had to rely on such international stars as Pele and Franz Beckenbauer because there were as many good American soccer players then as there are good linebackers from Belgium now. With the talent pool of U.S.-born players deepening, MLS still wants to attract the top players from abroad, but it is not dependent on them. The team maximum for international players has dropped from five to four to three over the years.

The ghost of the NASL, whose collapse was due in part to paying for all the foreign talent, still lurks. Paul Kennedy, managing editor of Soccer America magazine, said MLS types were skeptical when D.C. United was courting Gascoigne "because it would have created the stereotype the NASL had, that it's an elephant's graveyard." Still, Kennedy said, MLS "has brought in very few players past their prime."

Hudson, despite noting that "some bad apples took the money and hit the road," remains an advocate of international players, as long as they're the right ones. Those are the "diamonds in the crown," he said.

"There is still very, very sweet music that comes out of the older violin," said Hudson, who played in the NASL for Fort Lauderdale after a career in Europe. "American soccer players need to glean from the magic of an Etcheverry and the wonderful poise of a Stoichkov. They need that. But you can't instill that in them overnight.

"With the right ones, that's the key. They still have great entertainment value, and they're able to nurture and educate the young, developing American soccer players. But you don't want the donkeys. You want the thoroughbreds."

One of the thoroughbreds was Frank Yallop, a native of Great Britain who grew up in Canada, then moved back to England to play professionally. With his career winding down and seeking a change of scenery, Yallop took a major pay cut and tried MLS. He became a mainstay for Tampa Bay, the type of role model Hudson appreciates.

"I wasn't a big name player, but I played at a high standard my whole career," Yallop said. "You've got to come over and try to teach what you've learned over the years to the younger players."

It was a relatively smooth transition for Yallop, who became a D.C. United assistant under Thomas Rongen and then, as a rookie head coach, led the San Jose Earthquakes to the MLS championship last year after they finished last the season before. But others have had more difficulty.

"It's not an easy league to play in," Yallop said. "It's a different type of game that's played here. It looks easy from afar, that it might not be as difficult as they think, but then they realize the standard of play is higher. And, you're taken out of your environment.

"Half the thing is, top-quality players come into the league and everyone expects them to do great things and maybe it doesn't go as planned. They might tend to lash out and make excuses."

The caliber of play might be better than anticipated, but the officiating is another matter entirely.

"You have older players accustomed to a much more tenacious, aggressive standard," Hudson said. "In the United States, we're not quite there yet. It's a cleaner game we play here, and that's a testament to the referees. But a lot of older players have a tough time coping with that part of the game.

"People are just learning the game here, and the learning curve is steep. The referees are still learning. Not just the refereeing, but player management. A lot of the older, veteran players say it's very difficult, especially when they first come from overseas."

Although many international players actively seek out life in America (to the British, golf is a major attraction), many end up experiencing culture shock. Hernandez, who was supposed to bring in Mexican fans, was "one of the all-time busts in MLS," Kennedy said.

"A lot of foreign players have a tough time fitting in with American players, fitting in with their coaches," Kennedy said. "Hernandez didn't want to be here. He was AWOL a number of times taking care of family business in Mexico."

This is part of what makes finding the right import such a challenge. In other sports, first-round draft picks flop and high-priced free agents go belly-up. And these are athletes who are scouted thoroughly, tested feverishly and who often have to adjust only to a new set of cable channels.

It's not like what Hudson is up against.

"It's a nightmare," he said. "I'm going over to Denmark, Colombia and El Salvador, watching players in their environment, eating their own food, wholly ingrained in their way of life, and I have to look through a crystal ball and say, yeah, they can play Major League Soccer with younger players, adapt to an American lifestyle and accept all the compromises and conditions of a new league and a new country. That's hell."

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