End of the line for Peter's Paper Tigers

On paper they looked great. They had the Bay Area's premier organizer as GM, a veteran coach, experienced players who knew each other from the old days, a marquee goalscorer and funds to find that vital final piece of the puzzle, the name Mexican star who would pull at the gate, draw all-comers and wow the crowds. But somebody botched the script. Meet Peter Bridgwater's San Jose Clash, this season's MLS paper tigers. San Jose's season came crashing to a halt in typical Clash fashion against the L.A. Galaxy Sept. 21. Not for the first time this year was defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. This time, a two-goal lead was dismantled by a novice fullback named Jose Vasquez, the unlikely scorer of a hat trick in a 10-minute spell late in the second half. The Clash won't be going to the dance this year. And in a league where you have an 80 percent chance of playoff success, you know it has problems. The Clash made headlines this year, but for all the wrong reasons. On the field, yes, it could be boring and occasionally bad, but away from it, it was anything but. There was the much-publicized spat between coach Laurie Calloway and franchise player Eric Wynalda. A midseason coaching change that was particularly hard for Bridgwater, who fired a longtime friend. Wynalda came to play but didn't, as injury shortened his contribution to 13 games, and Dominic Kinnear, a former Blackhawk who was supposed to hold the midfield together and feed Wynalda (the player had arrived at his behest) had a patchy season. The big-name Mexican player, Carlos Hermosillo, talked telephone numbers instead of salary and priced himself out of the picture. And Daniel Guzman, hardly a crowd-puller in the first place, came, saw ù and fled. Ben Iroha, who drew mixed reviews from the Spartan faithful, resurrected his career after being traded to Washington D.C. United, while Brazilian import Zico (not the Zico) showed flashes and limped off with an ankle injury. Moreover, there were accusations of spats and factions among the players with the suggestion of racism from one member of the Hispanic media, who rechristened the team the "Ku Klux Clash." Whoever suggested that there was no such thing as bad publicity should think again. It made good copy for the beat writers, but it did little to enhance the image of the team in the eyes of a sensitive and discerning soccer public in the Bay Area. From the get-go, this looked like it was going to be a long season. The Clash staged the curtain-raiser against the MetroStars, with the bulk of the nation's media and Wynalda in the other San Jose ù Costa Rica. The crowd turned on Calloway, booing his name loudly at the pregame ceremony, and a dud of an opener ù the Clash won on a shootout after a scoreless tie ù followed. At the next home game, a 4-1 win over the Galaxy, a water bottle came crashing down from the top of the stand during postgame interviews, narrowly missing Calloway and dousing reporters. We moved inside for the rest of the season. By June, a banner trailed behind an aircraft overhead. On it was written: "Can the coach. The Clash deserve better." No marks for subtlety, but 10 days later, Calloway was gone ù bumped upstairs ù and replaced by former U.S. national team midfielder Brian Quinn, hired at the suggestion of ù among others ù Wynalda.

'There is enough talent in the team'

Two days before what transpires to be the fateful Galaxy game ù anything less than regulation victories against L.A. and playoff rival Colorado ain't gonna cut it ù Quinn is sitting in his office at Clash headquarters. A tape of the last meeting with the Galaxy is in the VCR, and the image of Jeff Baicher, scorer of two goals in a 3-2 win, with his arms outstretched in celebration, is frozen on the screen. I ask Quinn about the difficulties he had with the team when he took over. "It wasn't that difficult," he says. "The thing would be a lot more difficult if there weren't enough good players. I think there is enough talent in the team ù comparable to everyone else in the league. You come in and say, 'Is it crap?' and it wasn't crap. "These are guys who have been around, guys who've played in World Cups, guys who have won championships in different leagues. You have to decide what it is you want to do to be successful. In the end, you have to give responsibility to the defense." But the Clash defense has been hemorrhaging goals ù a league-worst 53 before the Galaxy game ù and it can't hold a lead. Witness the embarrassing 2-1 loss to the San Francisco Seals in the Open Cup. A prima facie example. "By defensively, I mean collectively with guys on midfield," says Quinn. "When they do well, it eases the pressure on the defense. We give up goals at critical times. There have been games when it seems like we've overcome that, then it turns up to bite us again. That's an ongoing issue where you have to concentrate, and not give up goals at crucial times. That's a sign of a good professional." What the Clash does have in its favor are vocal fan support and a stadium that other teams hate to play in ù the narrow field width renders it almost impossible to play leisurely soccer. "There's a great knowledge of soccer in this area," says Quinn. "It's not a case of: We've got to educate people and say this is what we're going to do. They understand the game. They've seen the Earthquakes, they get good crowds. And they're vocal. "Peter and I got invited to a pregame talk, where people could ask questions. It wasn't like, 'How ya doin' Brian? Meet the welcoming committee.' It was 'Hi. We wanna get better. Why isn't so-and-so playing?' That's what you want. When we're successful, we'll have 20,000 every game." So how many players is he away from a successful team? "Two ù Cruyff and Beckenbauer. The Dads," he laughs. Postgame at Spartan, he's anything but smiling. The preceding 90 minutes have seen to that. The game's a big deal: Univision's Andres Cantor is on-site, Steve Sampson does a stint as color guy, and what they, the media and 20,117 fans ù not bad for a noon kickoff ù see is another performance of the Clash as the Heimlich Kids. Ronald Cerritos scores the opener with a curling free kick that hits the far post then bounces in. Arnold Cruz and Eric Wynalda combine for Eddie Lewis to head in the second in the 68th minute. And then they crumble. Vasquez rises unmarked in middle of the box to head in two goals in the 71st and 76th minutes. The third comes 10 minutes from time, when Chris Armas and Mauricio Cienfuegos spring the offside trap and Vasquez is the first of four waiting Galaxy players in the six-yard box to get his foot to the ball. End of story. "The way the game had been going and playing well with 20 minutes left, that was defensively a challenge and we should have taken it with relish," says Quinn. "Instead, there was a mini-avalanche. The first gave them a big lift, and then they scored the second goal. The third goal came when we got caught short starting in attack." The players were appealing for offside, suggests one reporter. They raised their hands. "If I thought it would have done any good, I'd have raised my hand!" retorts Quinn. Further questioning proves fruitless. "You'll have to ask them [the players]," says Quinn. So we do. "I'll put it to the team," says a disconsolate John Doyle. "You don't play with four defenders. As a team we defended very poorly. "I'm sure there will be a ton of changes. When you don't have success in a season, usually there are." Wynalda, the star reduced to a cameo, is more forthright. "This sort of scenario has been happening all year," he says. "You can't teach players experience. They have to have it. I blame a lot of it on lack of experience. "Maybe [losing is] just getting to be something these guys have been getting used to. It hits me a little harder today because I haven't had it happen all year. I've been watching. To be a part of it is embarrassing." Cerritos offers another take, saying, "[Brian Quinn] has to answer for the team because he picked that team. I'm sad. We didn't deserve to qualify for the playoffs with the game we played today."

All eggs in one basket

Three varying takes, but all carry some semblance of truth. Here's my two cents' worth. When I visited Denver this summer, Colorado's Glenn Myernick remarked that there were a number of players who felt his club was a soft option, with guaranteed first-team ball, when he arrived. Quinn faced the same problem. The players were comfortable ù too cozy ù with Calloway and their game had slipped. Remember, these aren't kids, they're experienced American pros. Content with making do, the results suffered and Calloway, no longer able to motivate his players, paid the price. Second, the obsession with the Name Mexican Player. Bridgwater put all his eggs in one basket ù scrimping on the other foreign signings to snare a player the Clash could never realistically afford. The result? A player like Istvan Urbanyi, who came at a knockdown price, but was never discernibly better than a homegrown product. Third, the initial player selection and subsequent trades. I remember the days of the Blackhawks, and to be honest, they weren't that great. Last year's roster was simply a case of jobs for the boys. Only they were older and it showed. The marquee allocations and trades haven't worked out either. Or was it mere coincidence that allocatees Michael Emenelo, Christopher Sullivan and blockbuster trade Kinnear were on the bench alongside Wynalda for that crucial Galaxy game? And what of the future? Expect the usual wholesale changes. Given the Clash's final position, combined with the expansion draft, at least half the roster won't be around next season. Quinn will have the chance to build a team of his own. His first priority will likely be re-signing Cerritos, if the Clash can meet his Salvadoran club ADET's asking price. Then a trip to Mexico to identify a senior international to boost the gate without the inconvenience of France '98 whisking him away. A wise move? Maybe. No doubt, it's a real knife-twister for the Clash brass to witness the adulation Jorge Campos ù mobbed at Spartan ù receives, but in this market you could field anyone, be he English, Argentine or Martian, and if the team plays good soccer and wins games, the fans will come. And then and only then will the paper tigers roar for real. by Soccer America Senior Editor Duncan Irving
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