Although Major League Soccer is still struggling for recognition
as it enters its seventh season, it can at least take solace in
accomplishing something over the winter that Major League
Baseball couldn't: contraction. In January, MLS lopped off two
of its most troubled franchises, the Miami Fusion and the Tampa
Bay Mutiny, not only to pare the league to 10 teams but also to
condense the talent pool. "The level of competition is going to
be outstanding this year," says New England Revolution coach
Fernando Clavijo. "I just don't see any weak teams."
Clavijo has a selfish reason for appreciating contraction: He
was able to pick over the rosters of the dearly departed clubs
like Antiques Roadshow host Dan Elias at an estate sale. With
the second and 12th picks in the dispersal draft the Revs
acquired, respectively, forward Mamadou Diallo, the league's
leading scorer in 2000, and attacking midfielder Alex Pineda
Chacon, who won last year's scoring title. In between New
England nabbed two more starters in defender Carlos Llamosa and
midfielder Steve Ralston. Not a bad haul for a team that last
year scored 35 goals (third fewest in the league) and missed the
playoffs, but then no other team had the room to fit that many
quality players under the league's salary and foreign-player
caps. Says Clavijo, "With the dispersal draft we've pretty much
covered all our needs."
If the 29-year-old Diallo can regain the form he showed in 2000,
the Revolution's offense could be really special. A native of
Senegal, he arrived in Tampa from Lillestrom of the Norwegian
First Division, where agent Patrick McCabe had spotted him. A
former player at Trinity College in Hartford, McCabe has always
been a Boston-area sports fan, so his initial thought was to
give the Revs first crack at Diallo. They were training in
Mexico, however, and didn't get back to McCabe for two weeks. By
then he had forwarded Diallo's resume to the Mutiny, which
snapped him up.
The 6'4", 190-pound Diallo is the first to admit that he's not
the most technically skilled player. But everywhere he has
played--Morocco, Switzerland, Turkey and Germany, as well as
Norway--he has provided more quality finishes than the good
folks at Minwax. Taking advantage of midfielder Carlos
Valderrama's crafty feeds, he scored 26 goals in 28 matches in
2000, plus two in a 73-second span at the All-Star Game.
Following that game, Diallo took the public-address microphone
and, in slightly broken English, declared, "I am Big Mama, and
Big Mama controls the field and scores goals." There's not much
more to his soccer philosophy. "I am the goal scorer," says
Diallo. "That is in my blood. I need to score."
His flair, including dyed-blond hair, quickly made him a fan
favorite, but last season two suspensions cost him some
supporters. The first was for a hard foul, the second for
confronting a referee as the ref tried to keep Diallo from going
after a fan in Colorado who, Diallo says, yelled racially
abusive comments at him. Diallo scored only nine goals in 22
games. "Last year so many things were not right," he says. "It
made me frustrated."
His frustration wasn't confined to the pitch. In the fall the
French side Metz approached MLS about acquiring Diallo on loan,
but the league balked when Metz wanted the deal to run into the
2002 MLS season. The French league is something of a home away
from home for the Senegal team, which is coached by a Frenchman,
Bruno Metsu. Not being able to play in front of Metsu and against
his countrymen essentially doomed Diallo's chances of
representing Senegal in the World Cup this summer.
The deal's demise still has Diallo seething. "Honestly, I was not
happy," says Diallo, who has scored 21 goals in 46 games for his
country. "It was a good chance for me to play in the World Cup,
and it would have been good for MLS. I would have had a chance to
do well in the World Cup, and then they'd say that Mamadou of
Senegal played for Major League Soccer." What's bad for Diallo
and Senegal is good for New England, though. Unlike almost every
top professional league, MLS has games throughout the summer, so
several of the league's elite players will miss substantial time
during the Cup, which runs from May 31 to June 30.
Despite his absence from the national team, Diallo remains an
enormous celebrity in Senegal, where he's known as Seybani,
which means the Big Man in Wolof, his native language. When
McCabe visited Senegal with Diallo in December, he was amazed by
the royal treatment Diallo received. Even more astonishing to
McCabe was how many people depend on Diallo, who had a group of
at least 20 living in his house at the time. Every day at around
8 a.m. acquaintances would begin stopping in to see Seybani, who
would grant audiences like Don Corleone on Connie's wedding day
in The Godfather. They'd ask for a few bucks for this, a few
bucks for that. The requests, almost always granted, would
sometimes go on until 11:30 at night. "Literally, he's playing
for all these people," says McCabe. "Now that's pressure."
Diallo got Puma to provide equipment for three youth teams he
sponsors in his village of Oukam, and he is constantly on the
lookout for any gear he can send home. Last Saturday, his first
day at the Revolution's training facility in Foxboro, equipment
manager Ryan Maxfield turned him on to a pile of unwanted shoes
in an unused locker. Diallo snapped them up.
Any gestures of goodwill and sharing will be welcome among the
Revolution players, who increasingly divided into cliques last
season as things got worse on the field. Eager to heal the
rifts, Clavijo took the team to Brazil for three weeks in
January for what was equal parts training camp and Outward
Bound. No English-speaking TV, no Internet, no cell phones--just
a Ping-Pong table. "They were forced to integrate and talk to
each other and do things together that they never did," says
Clavijo. "It was the best 21 days that I've spent with a group
of guys. Sometimes you need to realize that there are more
important things in life than being able to get on the Internet."
The Revolution will showcase its new attitude and new faces in a
new setting. The team didn't get a soccer-only stadium like that
of the Los Angeles Galaxy, which broke ground in Carson City,
Calif., in February (the same month the Dallas Burn lost funding
for its proposed facility), but its new digs are far cozier than
Foxboro Stadium, which was torn down. Diallo would like nothing
more than to turn 21,000-seat CMGI Field into Big Mama's House.
"I am a new player here," says Diallo. "I have to make my name
here like the first year I played for Tampa. This is a new
COLOR PHOTO: SIMON BRUTY Revved up Goals--and grins--were scarce for Diallo in 2001.
COLOR PHOTO: RICH SCHULTZ/AP Howard's end MSL Goalkeeper of the Year in 2001, the Metros' Tim Howard hopes to snatch a title this year.
Ride the Metros
Who's the favorite to win the MLS Cup? We rank the teams from
top to bottom:
1. NEW YORK/NEW JERSEY METROSTARS
Before F Clint Mathis went down with a torn right ACL last
season, the Metros were MLS's best team. With Mathis healthy and
with the league's No. 1 GK in Tim Howard, they'll stay on top
2. SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES
Defending champs picked up Ariel Graziani as 20-year-old Landon
Donovan's new strike partner. Will this be Donovan's last MLS
year before he heads to Europe?
3. NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION
The Revs added the last two scoring champs, F Mamadou Diallo and
M Alex Pineda Chacon, along with All-Star D Carlos Llamosa.
4. CHICAGO FIRE
The bad: No team stands to lose more players to World Cup duty.
The good: With stars Chris Armas, DaMarcus Beasley, Ante Razov,
Hristo Stoitchkov and Josh Wolff in the lineup, Chicago is a
5. COLUMBUS CREW
The Crew's topflight attack--forwards Brian McBride and Edson
Buddle, midfielders Jeff Cunningham and Brian Maisonneuve--makes
up for a defense that has holes.
6. LOS ANGELES GALAXY
New F Carlos Ruiz will make Angelenos forget the ill-fated
signing of Luis Hernandez, but Greg Vanney's defection to the
French First Division hurts the D.
7. D.C. UNITED
Coach Ray Hudson brings his wit and wisdom to United, but it
will take more than that to rebuild a dynasty. How much longer
can Marco Etcheverry man the midfield? Based on his last two
seasons, not much.
8. COLORADO RAPIDS
Thanks to two new acquisitions, F Daniel Amokachi and D Pablo
Mastroeni, the Rapids will make the playoffs--despite an iffy
9. DALLAS BURN
The Burn is banking on the Salvadoran connection of F Ronald
Cerritos and M Zarco Rodriguez, but those vets aren't aging
gracefully. Nor, for that matter, is the league's most
consistently mediocre team.
10. KANSAS CITY WIZARDS
The Wizards won the title behind GK Tony Meola, M Preki and D
Peter Vermes. Two years later those three don't have enough left
to keep K.C. out of the cellar.
Wherever he has played, Diallo has provided more quality finishes
than the good folks at Minwax.
Says Clavijo of the downsized league, "I just don't see any weak