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Op-Ed \ John Haydon

Little sympathy for Lassiter's plight.

(Monday, December 13, 1999) -- Boy! Major League Soccer champion D.C. United and its fans play tough off the field too!

It seems I caused a bit of stink when recently on these pages I sympathized with Roy Lassiter, over his trade to the Miami Fusion from D.C. United. I felt like moving just in case my address got leaked. I received over 40 e-mails, including a note from Bruce Arena and a phone call from United general manger Kevin Payne.

One United die-hard fan asked "What universe are you from?" and called my comments "extraterrestrial garbage". I loved that one.

There's obviously a lot of astute fans out there and I was very impressed with most of the responses, but not those with the profanity and threats.

The bulk of the mail criticized me, but I did get 13 positive e-mails. I also learned that if you want to know what the real fans are thinking it might be time to step out of the press box and jump into the "Screaming Eagles" or "Barra Brava" fan club sections at RFK Stadium.

First I'd like to say that I'm a great admirer of D.C. United and in the last four years often praised the team to the hilt. I called Arena a "genius" once and was even criticized for saying that by people working for United if can you believe it.

From the comments I received is appears many United fans were ambivalent about Lassiter's departure. "Lassiter got booed more often than he got cheered this year at RFK," wrote one fan.

Another fan was more to the point: "This is a business, not some kind of kids club league."

One fan sarcastically told me to "alert Amnesty International," over Lassiter's plight.

My column was an attempt to address a "perception" that United traded players against their will and used the salary cap as an excuse. I suppose my real crime is being a sucker for the underdog and feeling sorry for Lassiter, the MLS all-time leading goal scorer. My views were not expressed in a vacuum The truth is many players aren't happy the way they are treated in MLS and that's why the league is facing a costly law suit from the players' union.

This league is far from perfect. MLS is only four years old and it has already fired its commissioner and deputy commissioner, rehired the deputy commissioner to run two of its teams, and fired and hired something like 18 coaches.

United general manager Kevin Payne took me to task over my comments. And I regret that I didn't call him for a response, but I wrote the article at work on Thanksgiving Day. Would anyone have returned my calls at United Park?

"Why can't people accept the fact that we have to trade certain players?" Payne asked. "Why would we, or anybody want to trade one of our best players?"

Payne explained that the club was forced to trade Lassiter to Miami because the team was $300,000 over the league's salary cap of $1.7 million. Also, Miami had been promised a big-name player to complete the July trade in which United acquired rookie Chris Albright from the Fusion.

Lassiter last week accused the club of lying to him. "When the deal first went down and I heard my name came up, I went to them and they said not to worry, that I wasn't going anywhere," Lassiter told the Washington Times.

Payne said that wasn't true. "I never told Roy `you aren't going anywhere'," he said. "I told Roy that nothing would be decided till after the championship and his goal was just to focus on his game. There were discussions about other players going to Miami. But you reach a point where if you send a middle level player it doesn't accomplish anything. You have to trade a high level player. We were not going to trade Marco (Etcheverry) or Jaime (Moreno) or Eddie (Pope) or Jeff (Agoos). I've been a big supporter of Roy and I feel terrible for him, but we had no choice. I get paid to make those tough decisions, and so far I haven't made too many bad ones."

According to Payne, Lassiter forced a meeting with him the day of United's victory rally in downtown Washington. Payne was also livid about the accusation that he was using the salary cap as an excuse to part with certain players.

"The salary cap is not an excuse but an imperative," he said. "The alternative would be to trade Jaime Moreno or Marco Etcheverry. In my mind they are the two best players in the league. They will never leave this team as long as I am here. If anybody out there thinks I really wanted to trade Raul Diaz Arce or John Harkes they are idiots. Those trades were a bitter pill for me. But my job is to make the difficult decisions to make this a successful team. Given our track record the fans should be happy."

Payne contended that the salary cap would be higher if the league wasn't mired down in the law suit with the MLS Players Association brought in 1997, which he says has cost the league already $5 million. "It is pretty disingenuous for John Kerr (executive director of the MLSPA) to be pointing a figure at the league," said Payne. "The players should start looking at this guy. That law suit has affected the issue. There would be more money for the players without it."

U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena got in the act over my column. "Do you really think in the four years of D.C. United's existence that they have cheated their fans?" asked the former United coach. "D.C. United is arguably the best club this country has ever seen -- next to the Cosmos. In return, they've averaged 15,000 fans a game and receive spotty press coverage. Who's being cheated?"

I agree with Arena, but I never said United had cheated the fans. Far from it, United has spoiled us in the last four years with the best soccer in America and I have often praised the team profusely

Hey, Bruce, this is what I wrote in 1997: "Just as Brazilian star Pele became the symbol of soccer to Americans in the 1970s when the North American Soccer League flourished, D.C. United is becoming the symbol of soccer to a new generation of fans."

My column did generate some support. One fan wrote "there are to many trades and too much player movement. It is unfair to the fans."

Another said: "The loss of yet another star United player leaves me and all my fellow soccer supporting friends with a bad taste in our mouths as well." Another fan wrote: "You're right that players like Etcheverry get paid above the salary cap, but guess what (surprise!), he's a draw at the stadium, and people buy merchandise and come to events because of him!"

John Haydon is soccer columnist for the Washington Times and can be e-mailed at haydon@twtmail.com.

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