“Phenomenal news of orgiastic proportions. A quantum leap. Stunning. Fantasy Land. A move that seemed impossible. The word genius undervalues him.”
If you know Ray Hudson, then you know these words could only belong to him. And who he’s talking about, well, you’ll know that too. Hudson’s adoration of Lionel Messi, on display weekly during his near-decade on the La Liga call for BeIN Sports, is well documented.
“Am I in love with him? You’re damn right I am,” added Hudson, born in Newcastle, England but an avowed South Florida convert since his arrival in 1978 to play in the old North American Soccer League.
Messi, the Argentine World Cup champion and seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, will now line up on the very same patch of earth where Hudson used to play all those “decades ago with Gerd Muller and [Nene] Cubillas – against Pele and [Johan] Cruyff and [Franz] Beckenbauer” at the old Lockhart Stadium.
Messi arrives at Inter Miami with MLS’ last-placed side having scraped and clawed their way into the Semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. One win away from a first major Final in the club’s short history – a game Inter have a chance to host – the 110-year-old tournament represents the best chance Messi and Co have of lifting a trophy in this historic first year.
You might think, should they reach it, that Inter Miami would be the first team from the city to contest an Open Cup Final. But you’d be wrong. There was another attempt to bring MLS soccer to the Magic City. That was the Miami Fusion, and in 2000, they reached all the way to the Open Cup Final.
Any guess who their coach was that year? Bingo, one Ray Hudson.
Hudson’s 2k Fusion ‘Up for the Fight’
“I’d never heard of Fort Lauderdale, but they said it was near Miami and I thought, ‘oh, James-Bond Country’ so I said I’m there for sure – I’d always loved the Americana,” said Hudson, who, after captaining the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the old NASL alongside legends like Muller and George Best, and up against Pele and Cruyff, went on to become the most creative voice in American soccer broadcasting. “It [Florida] became home. Spring break, and I never left.
“But then there were the lean times,” Hudson said from his home outside Miami, describing the decade between the folding of the NASL (1984) and the start of Major League Soccer (1996) when he worked briefly in the swimming pool business and entertained notions of opening a sports bar.
“The national team was going nowhere, the pro leagues were sputtering. It was a desert and the poor players – such talented players – caught up in that, had nothing to go to.”
The Miami Fusion – the second of MLS’ Florida teams at the time – came on line in 1998, Hudson joined on the PR side. While he was “learning the ropes” and taking his firsts steps toward perfecting his broadcast bombast as local TV commentator for the team, the Fusion were suffering on the field.
When asked ahead of the 2000 season if he’d take over as manager for “three or four games,” until a new full-time boss could be brought in, Hudson shrugged. “Anything to help the club,” he said, despite never having before considered coaching.
“We hit the beach and gave the lads a little relaxation,” said Hudson, no stranger to the Magic of the Cups. He vividly recalls being named man of the match in a sixth round FA Cup tie for Newcastle United against then-glamor side Derby County in 1975.
“There was the skeleton of a good team and we just needed to change the attitude,” he added.
Cup Run as Fusion Launching Pad
“We were just the kids from Miami Beach,” chuckled former goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who, fresh out of college, took over mid-year from Jeff Cassar as Hudson began to make his mark on the Fusion. “It was just fun. That’s how I’d describe that team. I remember the hotel lobbies and the bars – and everyone went out and demanded the best from each other on the field.
“Ray was such a players’ coach; he really brought the joy,” added Rimando, twice an Open Cup runner-up who represented the USMNT 22 times.Hudson, with a team that wasn’t likely to challenge for the MLS play-offs that year, saw the 2000 Open Cup as an opportunity to breathe new life into the flagging club. His position at the helm soon went from interim to permanent.
But that run to the Final almost ended before it started. After a 6-1 win over amateur side New Jersey Stallions, a trip to Saginaw, and the amateur Mid-Michigan Bucks, required a penalty shootout after finishing 3-3. “We played on a high school football field,” remembered Rimando with a burst of laughter. “And we almost lost – I mean that’s the beauty of the Cup right there.”
Hudson, now 68, won’t hesitate to name the players he admired in his first Fusion team – the likes of Diego Serna and Andy Williams. And a young Pablo Mastroeni, who’s now the head coach at MLS side Real Salt Lake and a potential opponent of Inter Miami in this year’s Open Cup Final.
One moment of that run to the 2000 Final stands out best for the former coach. With the golden-goal rule still in effect, it took a 112th minute strike from captain Jim Rooney against a star-studded DC United at RFK for the Fusion to seal a 3-2 Quarterfinal win. “I ran on the field like me hair was on fire,” laughed Hudson, who built a swashbuckling, free-scoring side that amassed 16 goals in five Open Cup games. “Jimmy ran away from me and down the tunnel and I never was able to catch up with him.”
“But that game showed how much these lads were up for the fight,” said Hudson, whose colorful press conferences became the stuff of legend in those early MLS years.
Fire Engulfs Hudson’s Doomed Fusion
After a 2-1 win in the Semifinals over Lothar Matthaus' MetroStars (now the New York Red Bulls), Miami’s Fusion fell in the Final against a Chicago Fire team loaded with superstar names and well in the habit of winning.
Hudson, always a generous sort, still feels for “poor Tyrone [Marshall],” whose late own-goal ended the fight and saw the Fire lift another trophy (2-1) at Soldier Field.
“We thought we had it,” Hudson remembered of that defeat. “But [DaMarcus] Beasley and [Peter] Nowak and [Hristo] Stoichkov and Jesse bloody Marsch. We were up against the gargantuan. But we ran them down to the final whistle.”
In the end, the Fusion were doomed as an organization. The writing was on the wall. With poor attendances and a lack of local interest, MLS shuttered the club at the end of the 2001 season despite Hudson’s new-look squad winning that year’s Supporters Shield and reaching the MLS playoffs.
Hudson put in two more seasons on the bench at D.C. United before returning to his home in the broadcast booth. But bittersweet memories of that plucky Fusion, and the 2000 Open Cup, stick with him.
“It was a happy pirate ship. The winds were against us and that team just enjoyed the battle,” said a wistful Hudson, involved in so many attempts to make top-tier soccer stick in his chosen home.
“But he’s here in my hometown now” exclaimed Hudson, ready to watch Messi, his on-field muse and idol, take a run at the trophy that only just slipped away from him 23 years ago. “Unbelievable.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.