By J Hutcherson (May 19, 2020) US Soccer Players - Back in 2001, the Miami Fusion entered the MLS playoffs with momentum. They were the Supporters' Shield winners, tied on points with fellow class of '98 expansion club Chicago. Though there were rumors that the league was in financial trouble and potentially considering contraction, Miami wasn't at the top of that list. They were a team looking to establish itself in the greater Miami market. That would've been a restart for the club that never intended to play in Fort Lauderdale. It turns out that they were playing out the final games of their existence and asking a question that still resonates. Would MLS have contracted its league champion?
Major League Soccer was a 12-team league in 2001, divided among three conferences with eight teams advancing to the playoffs. Miami played in the East with DC United, the MetroStars, and the New England Revolution. The September 11 attacks meant an early end to the regular season with some clubs playing 26 games and others 27. Due to that, MLS went with points per game to set the playoff bracket. Miami was one of those teams playing 26 games. MLS used a best of three series in the playoffs with the same regular season points system. The first to five points advanced, creating the potential for sudden death extra time.
Under coach Ray Hudson, the 2001 Miami Fusion built from the back with goalkeeper Nick Rimando. In front of him were defenders Tyrone Marshall and Carlos Llamosa, both established MLS talents. In midfield was the future Hall of Famer Preki alongside fellow USMNT players Pablo Mastroeni and Chris Henderson. Ian Bishop finished with 13 assists to Preki's 14. The goals came from Alex Pineda Chacon scoring 19 times with 9 assists and Diego Serna balancing his 15 goals with 15 assists. In a team where future MLS star and US international Kyle Beckerman made one appearance in his second season in the league, Miami was a force. They led the league in goals scored with 57 to Chicago's 50 and goal difference at +21 to Chicago's +20.
15 out of 16
Miami began the 2001 season with wins over Colorado and New England. A loss at Kansas City on April 18 would be their last until June 16. That run included six wins in a row from May 19 through June 9. Showing that scoring wasn't an issue, the Fusion beat Dallas 6-2 on the road on June 2. They followed that up with a 5-1 home win over the Wizards on June 9. The streak came to an end on July 7 with a 3-0 home loss to the Metrostars. It was the same score a week later in a loss to LA. They turned those losses around against their likeliest title rivals, beating Chicago 2-1 at home on July 18. On July 28, Rimando, Llamosa, Mastroeni, Preki, Bishop, and Pineda Chacon started the All-Star game with Serna on the bench.
August into September
After drawing 2-2 at DC to open their August schedule, Miami hit the wall with back-to-back losses to the MetroStars and New England. Once again, it was Chicago giving them the opportunity to shake off that disappointment, this time winning 2-1 at Soldier Field. They closed out the month with a win over Dallas. The Fusion ended the month at home with another loss to the MetroStars who swept the season series. A 3-1 win over DC at home on September 8 would be the unexpected end to the regular season. MLS suspended and then canceled the rest of the regular season following the September 11 attacks.
Conference didn't matter for the playoff field in 2001. Two teams advanced from the East, Miami taking the top spot and the Metrostars as the 6th-seed. The Fusion faced the Kansas City Wizards in the opening round, the 3rd-place team in the Western Conference. Even thought they finished a point ahead of Dallas, the Wizards took the 8th-seed rather than the 7th courtesy of points per game. The series opened with the Fusion winning 2-0 at home with goals from Serna and Pineda Chacon. Kansas City held up at home with a 3-0 win scoring all of their goals in the first-half. Back in Fort Lauderdale, Miami saw out the series with a 2-1 win on goals from Preki and Henderson. Onto the semifinals and a date with the Earthquakes who knocked out Columbus 3-1 away and 3-0 at home. Preki scored the only goal in their opening game win at San Jose on October 10. That would be it for Miami's offense, losing 4-0 at San Jose and 1-0 at home to an extra time goal on October 17. San Jose beat LA in sudden death extra time to win the 2001 MLS Cup.
So how good was the '01 Fusion?
It was never easy playing home games in Fort Lauderdale. Attendance was a concern early on, with the success Chicago had creating a clear distinction between the two clubs. It wasn't that the Fusion made do. Even after paying to renovate Lockhart Stadium, the team was still looking for an answer in Miami. Issues with the Orange Bowl made the likeliest solution a problem throughout the Fusion's existence. The city's baseball team was using the NFL stadium during the summer. That uncertainly risked overwhelming the club, pushing it into the same category as other troubled MLS teams. On the field, Ray Hudson had turned the Fusion into a contender a year after missing the playoffs. This was already a very good Fusion team pointing to better days, without question the best team in MLS for most of the 2001 season. Losing in the semifinals to San Jose would have broader ramifications, asking that basic question MLS didn't have to answer.
Would MLS have contracted its champion?
On January 8, 2002 MLS held a teleconference to announced that Tampa and Miami were the two teams the league would contract immediately. That was not a foregone conclusion leading up the announcement. By November, rumors of contraction were rampant in MLS, with the league-owned teams the easiest connection to make. Dropping both Florida teams was a surprise, with MLS vacating an entire region of the country. There's a version of events where San Jose won the only relegation game in league history, even if it was unofficial and required them lifting MLS Cup. San Jose had the worst attendance in MLS that season, the only team under 10,000. The Fusion's winning streak pushed them over the line at 11,177 also ahead of Kansas City and Tampa Bay. If contracting the Mutiny was a foregone conclusion, the team that went with them wasn't. The Dallas Burn was also in that conversation, joining the Wizards as the league's problem teams. After a rotating cast of investor/operators and the league tried to salvage the situation in San Jose, they would eventually go on hiatus following the 2005 season with the team moving to Houston. At the time, they were the Supporters' Shield winners who had exited in the opening round of the playoffs. The relocated version won back-to-back MLS Cups.
The end of the Fusion
The Fusion squad wasn't so fortunate. Broken up through the allocation draft and then the lovingly named dispersal draft, their story ended on the field against the Earthquakes on October 17. Pineda Chacon won the league MVP award and led MLS in goals with Serna in 2nd-place. With both eventually ending up in New England, they would score a combined three goals the following season. Llamosa had a better time of it in New England, becoming a key part of the squad that would lose to the Galaxy in the 2002 MLS Cup. Bishop only spent one season in MLS. Hudson and Rimando would continue that work in DC, winning the 2004 title with United. Preki joined Kansas City. Mastroeni and Henderson moved to the Rapids. So did Kyle Beckerman, the last member of the 2001 Fusion still playing in MLS.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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