MLS: Odd Men Out

The pain of contraction struck not just the folding Fusion and Mutiny, but scores of players across MLS.

A friend saw his name on the Internet.

The Colorado Rapids' most valuable defensive player last season thought he had found his niche. Playing in Denver, his hometown, leading the team in minutes for two consecutive seasons, Chris Martinez felt secure. And even after a tough season in which the team failed to make the playoffs, he felt the team was headed in the right direction.

Then suddenly, the team was headed in that direction without him.

Contraction cost Martinez his job. Far removed from Florida, where two MLS teams evaporated in an instant, he became a victim of the trickle-down effect that forced nearly every team in the league to part with veterans in order to meet salary restrictions.

At 31 and without a huge contract, Martinez may have interested other teams, but he was not interested in them.

"I'm from Colorado, this is where I grew up, this is where my family and my wife's family live," Martinez said. "It doesn't interest me to uproot and go play for another team, especially when that might only be for a year. I wanted to end my career here. ... It was a huge, huge, huge surprise."

There were ominous clues, however, that spread the surprise over the course of a couple months. Martinez fully expected the Rapids to pick up the one-year option on his contract for this season, but when no certified letter arrived in December for that purpose, he became suspicious.

Martinez went to Coach Tim Hankinson, who told him he needed to consider a reduced salary to stay with the team. It was a difficult thing to hear coming off his best season yet.

"I couldn't take that kind of pay cut at this point in my career," Martinez said. "It just wasn't feasible, financially."

Hankinson told him the possibility remained that deals done on the day of the dispersal draft might free up enough room for the team to sign him.

In the meantime, Martinez contacted his longtime friend, a Rapids assistant Lorne Donaldson, who along with Stoner Tadlock, a former Colorado Foxes player, were forming a new soccer school in Denver. Donaldson reassured Martinez that he would be playing again next season, but if not, a position with The Academy in Highlands Ranch awaited.

The dispersal draft came and went with the shocking news that Marcelo Balboa had been traded to the MetroStars. Martinez wondered what the move meant for him, when a friend called to tell him he had been waived, or so it said on the Internet. Martinez went to the Rapids training facility and approached Hankinson.

"He was pretty tongue-tied," Martinez said. "He just kept apologizing."

The wound is still fresh for Martinez, but he's thankful to have an opportunity set up in the community that can consume him right away. The only other bright spot is that he'll have more time to spend with his wife and two young daughters.

RE-ENERGIZED, MOTIVATED. Jason Moore accepts that some things are beyond his control. Talks of impending contraction during the last two months of 2001 had him worried, but more about the Rapids than about himself.

"We were kind of on the bubble there for a while and we heard something different every day," said Moore, who returned to his home state of Georgia for the holidays. "It was a Christmas spent wondering and waiting."

Moore knew he might have to restructure his contract to a lower figure. But as things started to shake down and he saw the Rapids pick up Chris Henderson and Mark Chung in the dispersal draft, he saw the writing on the wall. Upon being waived, he went through a range of emotions.

"I kind of panicked at first," Moore said. "You think, 'Why is this happening to me?' I felt like I had done something wrong. It shows you never know what you're in for next."

After the initial shock, however, Moore began viewing the situation more broadly, more objectively.

"With the league as a whole, sometimes you have to take two steps back before you can take one step forward," Moore said. "Hopefully the league stays around and betters itself ... I try not to take it personally."

Just three years ago, Moore was a highly touted prospect whom D.C. United made the first overall pick in the draft after two years at Virginia. After his rookie season, United shipped him to Colorado, where he notched nine assists in two seasons.

"From D.C. to here and now, possibly to somewhere else, it's been a long haul," he said. "Just as you start to get comfortable somewhere, things change again."

Six months ago, Moore bought a house in Denver. For now, that is his home base while he tries to make an MLS roster. In March he turns 24, too young to hang up the cleats. The Columbus Crew extended an invitation for him to train with them in Florida for two weeks. He relishes that opportunity and is eager to prove himself.

"If I can look back, be honest with myself and know I've done everything in my power and yet here's this setback, then I might be more negative," Moore said. "But I can't. I've come to a point where I can say I haven't left everything on the field, so this is something I might deserve and it might be a turnaround point for me. So I'm just using it to make me work harder."

DISTRAUGHT AND DISILLUSIONED. None of it makes sense to Ian Bishop.

From his home in Liverpool, he keeps trying to figure out why the team he helped turn around no longer exists, why its success counted for nothing, why no other team wanted his services.

"It baffles me, honest to God," Bishop, 36, said.

Bishop joined MLS last year after 18 years of professional soccer in England, most recently Manchester City of the Premier League. He came in search of a new challenge and it could not have gone better. He quickly established himself as one of the best holding midfielders in league history as he orchestrated Miami's possession game and set the table for offensive talents like Diego Serna, Preki and Alex Pineda Chacon.

The Fusion earned the league's best regular-season record and November the league picked up Bishop's option year, so he took that as a positive sign.

"I actually turned down clubs [in England] since the end of the season because I thought I was coming back to the MLS," Bishop said. "I may have given up opportunities here that could never come back."

But the Fusion dissolved, and soon Bishop endured the insult of being passed over in the dispersal draft.

"It's easy to talk about pay structure, but I'm under the impression that if the league wants to fit you in somewhere, they'll fit you in," Bishop said. "Maybe I wasn't that important. Maybe I wasn't that big."

He was, however, dedicated and enthusiastic about the league, unlike many of the foreign acquisitions in recent years.

"I've seen a lot of good over there," Bishop said. "I thought the league was going places. This has just been a kick in the [crotch], really. I do hope it goes on because there are decent people there, decent players and I had a great time."

He recently returned to South Florida to extricate himself from a lease and tidy up the other loose ends remaining there. During a week's stay, he ran into many of the English-Americans who had befriended him in the past year and he had trouble looking them straight in the eye.

"They feel betrayed," Bishop said.

Nobody from the league has contacted him to thank him for his time here or apologize for the way things turned out.

"I'm just not happy with anything," Bishop said. "It has disgusted me, in fact, that you can be treated like that."

Adding to the sting is the fact that Bishop and his family enjoyed Florida so much, they were thinking about setting up a permanent home there. He and wife, Jane, have difficulty explaining the situation to their children: Jordan, 9, Conor, 6, and Megan, 3.

"They were settled at school in Boca," Bishop said. "And they loved it. And they want to know when they're going back."

by Soccer America Senior Editor Will Kuhns

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