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Fusion or Revolution are headed for dubious MLS playoff distinction.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Monday, September 20, 1999) -- Major League Soccer will set a record going into the playoffs that it won't be trumpeting.

Two teams mired in futility for the past couple months, the Miami Fusion and New England Revolution, are battling for the fourth and final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. They also both have a shot at third place, too, occupied by the Tampa Bay Mutiny, but forget it.

Whichever team wins fourth place -- and we probably could use a more accurate verb - will be No. 1 in having the worst regular season record of anyone ever to participate in the MLS playoffs. The Fusion and Revolution have earned this distinction with still three contests to play.

If Miami was to win its final three games in regulation time, it would finish with 32 points. If New England was to likewise take its last three games, it would finish with 31 points. The lowest number of points for a playoff team in the first three years of Major League Soccer was earned by Miami, which finished fourth with 35 points in 1998.

The Fusion's problems haven't been as sustained as the Revolution's, losing four straight games before taking a shootout win against New England -- and then bombing 6-1 at San Jose. It is 11-18 for 23 points, with games remaining at Columbus and home to Columbus and Colorado.

The Revolution, meanwhile, has been in a freefall, winning just two of its last 13 matches. It is 10-19 for 22 points, with home games left against Dallas and New York\New Jersey, and a final match at D.C. United.

Miami has no punch on offense, especially with high-scoring forward Diego Serna out for half of the season with a knee injury. New England has firepower, but sporadic weaknesses on defense, and the players throughout don't mesh well together.

Even the woeful, last-place MetroStars have played better in recent weeks -- winning at Columbus and taking D.C. United into a shootout.

MLS is littered with under-achieving teams, but no one comes close in the over-achieving department to Tampa Bay. Coach Tim Hankinson has accomplished miracles with a modestly endowed side since taking over during the 1998 season. He has the Mutiny third in the East, with 29 points, and playing solid soccer against good and bad teams.

Besides trying to overcome heavy injuries on the defense, he made wholesale changes during the season, and they have paid off. Carlos Valderrama's offense-only magic didn't appeal to Miami, but it does to the Mutiny. Raul Diaz Arce wasn't scoring at San Jose; he has in Tampa Bay, where he pairs well with rugged Musa Shannon or new acquisition Manny Lagos.

Hankinson got rid of Josh Keller in 1998, but got him back in 1999 and he has been a revelation at defensive midfield behind Valderrama. Mauricio Ramos, normally a central midfielder, moved to the flank with the addition of Valderrama -- and has adjusted and contributed. Steve Ralston has been outstanding on the flank.

Defender Richie Kotschau was acquired, and Joseph Addo was signed, to fill gaping holes in the defense left by the season-ending injury to Jan Eriksson, illness of Chris Houser, and R.T. Moore's mid-season retirement to go to dental school.

Scott Garlick, formerly with D.C. United, has been outstanding in goal. This is a team capable of beating anyone in a single match. Winning two out of three in a playoff series might be difficult. But don't forget that the Mutiny's record against Eastern Conference runnerup Columbus, their likely first-round foe, is 3-1 this season.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at

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