Friday, November 14, 2003

Now that D.C. United’s roller coaster season has ended, the second-guessing and blame-game has begun.

Some fans are calling for coach Ray Hudson’s head, but I say let’s be patient and give Hudson another year on the job.

I’ll be honest, this wasn’t the easiest of seasons to digest and the soccer at RFK Stadium sometimes looked downright ugly. There again, maybe I’ve been watching too many Champions League games on TV. Major League Soccer is but eight years old and its best days lie ahead.

There are valid reasons why Hudson should stay. He led United into the playoffs for the first time in four years under nerve-racking circumstances. A number of key players were injured and Hudson had to patch together a team that included more than a few volatile personalities.

Hudson built one of the best backlines in the league and statistically United’s best defense ever. His personality put a face on soccer that helped sell the game to the local media.

Many of the problems United faced were out of Hudson’s control. Injuries, national team call-ups and the lack of a decent training facility, all added up to a tough year. The team also suffered its fair share of bad luck in a number of tight games.

In the hallways of American soccer, where the suits run the show, the British-native might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Hudson wears his emotions on his sleeve and his bluntness upset some. He is an intuitive coach, more of a motivator than a tactician, and the scars on his shins prove he knows what he is talking about.

It is understandable why some are calling for change, but moving the chairs on the deck for sake of change is futile. This was a frustrating season not a disastrous one. Before injuries downed goalie Nick Rimando and midfielder Ben Olsen — two of Hudson’s key players — United looked like one of the hottest teams in MLS.

United’s biggest problem was finding a player with a nose for scoring goals. None of United’s forwards stepped up this year and that’s where the changes have to come.

Some say Hudson made a hash of the draft, but even the Oracle in the “Matrix” wouldn’t have guessed that lesser draft picks, such as Damani Ralph and Pat Noonan, would have made such an impact this year.

One thing is clear, Hristo Stoitchkov has to go. I’ll admit, I love to watch Stoitchkov, but it’s a costly relish. This world-renown veteran should be setting an example on the field, not bulling referees, berating ball-boys and bad-mouthing his coach.

Hudson, to his credit, tried to absorb Stoitchkov with all his foibles. But the Bulgarian, whose season was booked-marked between breaking an American University player’s leg in a friendly scrimmage in March and shoving teammate Bobby Convey in Sunday’s season-ending loss at Chicago, is too combustible. Stoitchkov needs anger management. Maybe he can join soccer’s other notorious bad-boys, Vinnie Jones and Eric Cantona, in making gangster movies.

Marco Etcheverry also needs to move on and allow others to take over his role on the club. The Bolivian maestro still can produce magic, but his brooding personality is more of a hindrance than a help on a team that needs new blood and salary cap space.

If Hudson can deal with disciplinary problems he had with the likes of Stoitchkov and Etcheverry, surely he will have no problem with the temperamental but gifted Clint Mathis who is looking for a change after a horrendous season with the MetroStars. Just a thought.

The grapevine — Big changes are afoot in California. Sources say Sigi Schmid could be out as the Los Angeles Galaxy coach and replaced by former German superstar Jurgen Klinsmann. Meanwhile, coach Frank Yallop will leave the San Jose Earthquakes and take over Canada’s national team. Yallop will be replaced by his assistant Dominic Kinnear.

Olympic callup — Five D.C. United players will be on the U.S. under-23 team roster that takes on St. Kitts and Nevis in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying playoff tonight on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts. United’s contingent includes midfielders Bobby Convey and Brian Carroll, goalie Doug Warren, defender David Stokes and forward Alecko Eskandarian.

The second game of the series will be played Wednesday at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown at 7:30 p.m.

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