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Missing the Mutiny

The impending start of the 2008 season on Saturday has me nostalgic for a time in the not too distant past when I actually had an MLS squad to support.

That’s right, I wasn’t always so bitter about every team in the league, there was actually a time when I once (gasp!) displayed unadulterated bias towards a single squad.

The squad? The beloved Tampa Bay Mutiny…

Sometimes its hard to believe we even had a team, but back in 1996, professional soccer came (though not to stay) to Tampa Bay.

Well, Tampa to be more exact. If the team actually played for (or in) Tampa Bay, we would be talking about water polo, not soccer.

The Mutiny won the Supporters’ Shield the inaugural season of MLS and made it to the semifinals of the first MLS playoffs. Unfortunately, they would never match this early success, and by their last season they had fallen to last in their division, failed to qualify for the playoffs and were embarassed in the Round of 32 of the Open Cup.

In fact, the only thing going right for the Mutiny in 2001 was their attendance. Despite averaging fewer than 10,000 fans a game in 2000, the fear of losing the franchise spurred an average of nearly 15,000 fans to attend home games in 2001.

Alas, it was too little too late though for TB.

Though the last season was not so memorable, the Mutiny did have their share of memorable players over the years. Notable names who donned those outrageously ugly uniforms include Mamadou Diallo, Frankie Hejduk, Roy Lassiter, Steve Ralston and current MLS coaches Dominic Kinnear and Frank Yallop.

Ralston played 187 games for the Mutiny, which would be a nice career in itself. Of course, he has gone on to play in 184 more games with New England. I, for one, will be sad to see Ralston the Rev eclipse the games played mark of Ralston the Mutineer (I know, in addition to the unis, the name sucked too)…

But the Mutiny will be most remembered for Carlos Valderrama, who despite only playing five years with the club compiled an unthinkable 81 assists. That’s an average of 16 assists per season. Not too bad for a guy who was 40 years old when the team folded.

Valderrama, though, is less remembered for his unbelievable play than he is for his coif, which is indisuptably the most famous and, in my opinion, greatest look in the history of the league… Judge for yourself:

Greatest… Look… Ever…

So great, that TB fans would don the most ridiculous, enormous wigs you have ever seen to honor the Colombian playmaker. Though it was tough to see if you had a row of Valderrama fans in front of you wearing them. The man was so loved in Tampa that almost every game seemed like Carlos Valderrama Day at the stadium.

The Mutiny won their first game in Tampa Stadium (aka “The Big Sombrero”), but by the time they left town, they were playing in Raymond James Stadium (aka “The Ray-J”). NFL fans remember the Ray-J as the stadium with the strange pirate ship in the end zone. Mutiny fans remember it as the scene of the Mutiny’s final game, a loss to the Crew.

That last game certainly created heartache in Tampa. Of course, it wasn’t supposed to be the last game, but 9/11 happened two days later and suddenly Mutiny soccer didn’t seem all that important anymore. Even after the Mutiny were contracted by the league three months later, no one really seemed to care. At that point, it looked like all of MLS would eventually be going the way of the Dodo.

Six years later, MLS is actually stronger than ever financially. Yet the Florida market (one of the largest in the nation), still has no team (the Miami Fusion were defused at the same time as the Mutiny).

MLS needs to break back into the market in Florida, and either Tampa or Miami are the obvious choices, though Orlando and Jacksonville also have the size and soccer frenzy to support a squad. Miami certainly has a head start on acquiring a team, but I would like to see Tampa get into the mix.

Maybe the Mutiny, like the Earthquakes, can return to the league after a “hiatus” of sorts.

I bet Valderrama could still lead the team in assists too.

Maybe even the league.

Hey, he’s only 47…

And his hair still looks fantastic…