- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2002

D.C. United is losing again on the field and now also struggling at the gate, the one place it had always been a winner.
United's attendance is down 39 percent after three home games at RFK Stadium to an average of 13,186. Last season United led Major League Soccer with an average of 21,518.
Previously, the franchise had been one of the top draws in MLS, averaging 17,410 over six seasons. United also had been one of the league's biggest winners, winning three of the first four MLS championships. Even though it won the title in 1999, the club has not been the same since coach Bruce Arena left after the 1998 season.
Now United has suffered through back-to-back losing seasons and seems destined for a third. Despite the losses, the crowds continued to show at RFK Stadium until this spring.
United's ticket office is blaming first-year coach Ray Hudson for the decline at the gate because of the team's 2-5 start. Hudson said he inherited the problem when he took over the team and is unable to do anything about it.
"The ticket guys have said, 'You're not helping our cause.' And I said, 'I'm not going to fool the people. I'm not going to tell them we're the [hot ticket] right now,'" Hudson said. "We are patently not. I don't want to lose that credibility. There are people within this club that think [this situation] is not bad. Well, it's not good enough for me."
Hudson's hands are tied. United's colorful English coach wants to gut the team and mold it his way. Unfortunately for Hudson, external forces won't let him do it.
Kevin Payne senior vice president of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, investor-operator of United and 4 other MLS teams, traded off United's experienced players two years ago.
While dealing nine veterans including Jeff Agoos, Carlos Llamosa, Tom Presthus and Richie Williams Payne cited the league's tight salary cap, and began assembling young talent. Payne's vision for the future hasn't translated into victories, and United is now in year three of his rebuilding process. Payne was unavailable for comment yesterday.
Dave Kasper, United's technical director, was hired by Payne in the offseason before Hudson was brought on and appears to report to no one other than Payne. That explains why United drafted another teen-ager, 17-year-old midfielder Justin Mapp, to join Bobby Convey, 18, and Santino Quaranta, 17, with the fourth overall pick in February's MLS SuperDraft.
Mapp won't report full time until next month. United's commitment to youth also illustrates why the team is so reluctant to make necessary roster moves to become competitive this season. United appears to need a massive overhaul just to bring the fans back.
"It's beyond frustration it's excruciating," Hudson said of United's situation. "[Assistant coach] John Trask and I talk about it endlessly. When we first got our hands on the Miami Fusion the first year and turned them into a .500 team, we stuck with what we had. We waited, we evaluated and we kept the one or two, three or four good pieces, and we had a shopping list and went to town."
By cleaning the Fusion's decrepit house, Hudson and Trask went 16-5-5, the best record in MLS last season.
United used the selection of Mapp as a "luxury pick" instead of drafting a player who could step in and start, such as Chicago's Kelly Gray, Columbus' Kyle Martino, and Colorado's Jeff Stewart. Of United's six draft picks, only backup goalkeeper Mike McGinty, a second-round selection, is on the active roster.
United has not scored a goal in two consecutive games and desperately needs an accomplished striker, but Kasper has yet to make a roster move during his tenure.
"I can't speculate that our performances are hurting us [at the gate]," said United senior vice president Stephen Zack. "We're not too concerned. Our opener was over Easter weekend, and the other two [games] were on two miserable weather days. We can usually expect a fairly big walkup of 3,000 or more on any given game, but not when it pours and is 50 degrees."
Currently, United is seventh in the 10-team league in home attendance, and even that ranking should have an asterisk placed next to it.
The New England Revolution have yet to play a home game while waiting for CMGI Field to open. The Chicage Fire (9,444) are playing in suburban Naperville, Ill., this season while Soldier Field undergoes renovation. The San Jose Earthquakes (8,203) are perennially poor at the gate and were almost contracted earlier in the year until billionaire Philip Anschutz stepped in and bought half the operating rights to the MLS defending champions.
The league average attendance so far this season is 16,230 an 8 percent increase over last season's 14,961 and thus far United is even under last season's modest average.
Despite the boost in league-wide attendance, MLS officials concede their work in building and maintaining fan awareness is far from over, as evidenced by United's recent struggles.
"We are definitely still in a development mode with respect to building our fan base," commissioner Don Garber said.
United's home attendance figures undoubtedly will climb with doubleheaders scheduled for the next two weekends. The club already has sold 25,000 tickets for Sunday's game against Columbus, with the U.S. men's team playing Uruguay in a friendly. The following weekend, United will share billing with the Washington Freedom, of the Women's United Soccer Association.
Notes United forward Abdul Thompson Conteh, who is in danger of being released if Hudson has his way, was not at practice yesterday despite returning from his native Sierra Leone on Sunday. Conteh's absence fueled speculation that he already has been released. Team officials said the ineffective Conteh had an excused absence and saw the team physician
Hudson said he may go on an overseas scouting mission this weekend to look for a striker. Hudson, who wouldn't reveal what country he's planning to visit, said he will leave Thursday and return to Washington on Saturday.
Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this report.


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