2002 in Review: PabloÆs Change of Fortunes

January 8: Major League Soccer announced that the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion will immediately cease operations, reducing the league to 10 teams.

For the second year in a row, the New Year began with talk of contraction in MLS. Unlike 2001, this time around league executives pulled the plug.

Tampa Bay, as a league-run team without potential saviors, always led the list of teams most likely to be chopped.

Anschutz Entertainment Group advisers had been suggesting to Phil Anschutz that the Rapids should be contracted.

But Anschutz lives near Denver, and the team had negotiated a much better lease at Invesco Field than its previous deal at Mile High Stadium.

San Jose and Dallas were in the pool as well but were eventually saved by operator-investors AEG and the Hunt Sports Group, respectively.

No such benefactor could be found for the Fusion. Operator-investor Ken Horowitz had lost $20 million in addition to the $20 million expansion fee he had paid to join MLS and couldn't afford any more.

''We really believed that after the year we had there was no way they could get rid of us,'' said the Fusion's Pablo Mastroeni, ''but they did.''

The Fusion, the highest-scoring team in the league and winner of the Supporters' Shield for the best regular-season record, had been jettisoned. Head Coach Ray Hudson immediately jumped on a northbound plane to take over D.C. United.

''Last year, Ray used the threat of contraction to get us going,'' said Mastroeni, an emerging star on a roster studded with talented players. '''They're trying to kill us off! Don't let them do it!' he'd say. And it definitely motivated us and was one reason we had the best record in the league.''

February 2: The United States beat Costa Rica, 2-0, to win the Gold Cup for the second time. Gold Cup performances went a long way toward earning several players spots on the U.S. World Cup roster.

Pablo Mastroeni's fortunes quickly changed.

Three days after contraction was announced, Mastroeni was taken by Colorado - one of the teams that had been spared - with the first pick in MLS's Allocation Draft.

The native of Argentina had received his citizenship in 2001 and made his U.S. debut shortly thereafter. He hadn't played in any World Cup qualifiers, but U.S. coach Bruce Arena added Mastroeni to his Gold Cup roster after defender Greg Vanney was loaned to French club Bastia.

Mastroeni sat out the first game, then played every minute as a central defender in four straight matches (right in photo against Cuba's Alberto Delgado). The United States rolled to its first regional crown since 1991 without conceding a goal with Mastroeni on the backline.

''He plays on instinct and loves to play and has a lot of heart,'' said Arena of Mastroeni. ''This stuff's all new to him.''

National team stuff wasn't new to Frankie Hejduk and Eddie Lewis, but they'd faded from the national team picture mired on the bench at Bayer Leverkusen and Fulham, respectively.

Hejduk and Lewis revived their national-team careers with solid showings.

''Don't think that the Gold Cup performances win World Cup roster spots,'' said Arena after the U.S. beat nemesis Costa Rica in the final. ''We're four months away from selecting our roster.''

Yet when that roster was announced, Mastroeni was on the roster. Arena said Mastroeni had played his way on to the team with his performance in 2002. Lewis and Hejduk were also on the World Cup roster.

All three players would start against Germany in the quarterfinals of the World Cup.

by Soccer America Editors

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