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Hudson Feature

First appeared in the Washington Post Feb 2002

DC’s Leading Man – New United Coach Brings Character, Emotion to Sideline

One day very soon, Ray Hudson is going to plant a kiss on the cheek of one of his unsuspecting D.C. United players – right there in the middle of RFK Stadium, during a match, in front of 20,000 witnesses. Later, he might do a little jig on the sideline, his long, sun-bleached blond hair flopping around, and turn to the crowd with arms waving wildly to implore it to make noise.

Later, in his postgame confessional, he might shed a tear or two while recounting his team’s efforts and say such things as “I’m higher than a hippie at Woodstock” or “He’s as competitive as a hungry tiger, yet he’s got the sensibility of a village priest” or “We all know Valderrama’s big hair is covering the eyes in the back of his head.”

And after seeing and hearing all this, some, after having gotten so accustomed to the stoic Bruce Arena or the cool Thomas Rongen on United’s sideline, will wonder what in the name of Major League Soccer is going on around here?

“It’s in me blood,” said Hudson, a 46-year-old Englishman with an eclectic past who was named United’s coach on Jan. 8, just hours after his previous club, the Miami Fusion, was folded. “I have very deep passions for this game and for my players. I’ll let the whole world know how I feel, no holding back.”

Hudson will make his debut on March 6, when D.C. plays at Comunicaciones of Guatemala City in the CONCACAF Champions Cup. United’s MLS opener is March 23 at Los Angeles.

Hudson’s mission is to inspire an underachieving United team that’s in need of an emotional jump-start after missing the playoffs the last two years. This isn’t the first time Hudson has been called to the rescue. During the 2000 season, he went from Miami’s community outreach director and television commentator to head coach following the Fusion’s slow start.

“A flea-ridden dog without a lick of respect” is what he later called the squad, and then proceeded to turn it into the MLS’s best during the 2001 regular season before elimination in the playoff semifinals by eventual champion San Jose.

Hudson, a stylish player in the 1970s and ’80s with England’s Newcastle United and the North American Soccer League’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers, promises to give United’s players the freedom to express themselves on the field – an approach that worked well with the Fusion.

“I bring a lot of connection from the coaching position to the players,” Hudson said. “I see meself as an extension of the players, rather than the governor or the big boss. I’m in the trenches with them and I want to be close to the pulse of the team. I don’t want to be stuck in some ivory tower with an X’s and O’s board. Some coaches are that way and I totally respect them and they want square pegs for square holes. I’m just not that way.

“I look at it more as if it’s a canvas that we’re going to throw paint on and make something beautiful of it, rather than some contrived pattern. That’s the only way I really know.”

So far, Hudson has received rave reviews from the D.C. players. They seem to be having fun again after two stressful years and the energy level in preseason practices at RFK Stadium’s auxiliary field and in southern Florida is soaring, according to most everyone involved.

Said captain Marco Etcheverry: “There was something missing for a couple of seasons. We weren’t D.C. United anymore. But with Ray, now everybody is very optimistic that we can be like the old D.C. United.”

Gray Beginnings Turn Sunny

Hudson’s enthusiasm was born in slate-gray northeast England, in the working-class village of Dunston, just across the River Tyne from Newcastle – “not a very nice river,” he says. “Some days you didn’t need a bridge to walk across it.”

The area is known for its deeply rooted attachment to soccer, particularly with the local club, Newcastle United. Formed in 1882, the Magpies and their supporters have a bittersweet relationship, not unlike the Boston Red Sox and their New England fans. It’s a blind faith of sorts, molded in large part by Newcastle’s inability to win the league championship since 1927 and the FA Cup since ’55.

The Newcastle area has produced its share of soccer celebrities, from the Charlton brothers, Jack and Bobby, who helped England win its only World Cup title, in 1966; to Paul Gascoigne, the temperamental and enigmatic star during the 1990s.

Hudson, the son of a toolmaker and a seamstress, played at Dunston Park, a few blocks from his home on Baker Gardens Street – “going to the park with me dad, him encouraging us to dribble, dribble, faster, faster with the ball. It was always with the ball. It wasn’t kicking the ball, it was always dribbling the ball.”

The ball became Hudson’s best friend and helped shape a coaching philosophy that stresses style and improvisation.

I remember going to the corner store, running errands for the people on the street,” he said. “I went into this one store, Mrs. Henry’s, and she says, ‘Raymond, what’s wrong? You’re not fully dressed.’ I says, ‘What do you mean?’ She says, ‘Where’s your ball?’ Because I always had me ball. You always, always had your ball. You never went out without it. Even if you were going to the store, you kicked it down the alley. You live with your ball.”

Hudson left school at age 16 and went to tryouts in various parts of the country. Homesick and without a contract, he returned to Dunston and began looking for work. He lasted three weeks doing metal work in a factory and, without any qualification, pursued an accounting apprenticeship at a place so undesirable to work, Hudson said, that the “best part of the day was going into the city center at lunch hour breathing in the diesel fumes just to make me feel alive before going back into that dungeon. It was something out of Oliver Twist, real Dickensian.”

All the while, he was playing soccer as an amateur, hoping to catch the eye of a talent scout. It finally happened in 1973 and he was signed by Newcastle United. He spent four seasons at St. James Park, home of the Magpies, a local boy making his mark with the local club. Hudson played in a few dozen games with the first team and scored a couple of goals, but his life changed dramatically when a local scout spotted him in a reserve match and asked him if he wanted to go to the United States and play for the Strikers in the blossoming NASL.

“For me, a 22-year-old kid, to go from Newcastle – gray, drizzly Newcastle – to Fort Lauderdale beach in the mid-’70s, pffffff, it was paradise,” he said. “I didn’t even know places like that existed. I thought it was an Indian outpost when I heard ‘Fort’. ‘Dances With Wolves’ stuff.

“We were a bunch of pirates living near the beach, just loving life. It was a very exciting team that year [1977] and the start of a really great love between the Strikers and the city.”

Youthful Enthusiasm

Hudson returned briefly to Newcastle United in 1978, but was determined to go back to Florida and stay there. He did, playing alongside Peruvian great Teofilo Cubillas and German star Gerd Muller, among others. Hudson was team captain and one of the top midfielders in the league, helping the Strikers to Soccer Bowl ’80 against the New York Cosmos before more than 50,000 at RFK Stadium. (The Cosmos won, 3-0.)

At the time, Strikers Coach Ron Newman said of Hudson: “I wouldn’t trade him for [German legend and Cosmos star] Franz Beckenbauer.”

The Strikers eventually moved to Minnesota and Hudson went with them, but he kept his home in southern Florida. By the time the NASL went under after the 1984 season, Hudson had accumulated 44 goals and 99 assists in 197 matches, with five all-star selections.

He later played in the Major Indoor Soccer League and joined the reincarnated Strikers, as part of the low-scale American Professional Soccer League in the late ’80s. But by then, his best days on the field were behind him and it was time to find a new line of work.

He was in the process of buying a restaurant/sports bar, but the deal fell through at the last moment. “I was out in the wilderness for about a year,” Hudson said. “I did absolutely nothing. I thought about going back to England. I didn’t know where to turn.”

A friend asked him if he would be interested in helping out a local girls’ youth soccer program, the Hollywood Wildcats. He reluctantly agreed, and the great Ray Hudson was earning about a $1,000 a month teaching the game’s fundamentals to players as young as 6 years old.

“For some reason, it gave me back my appetite for the game because I had become really sick of the game,” he said. “I had done a lot in soccer, but I had never done this. It was refreshing.”

Besides youth soccer, Hudson took up an offer from a friend to work in the pool business – cleaning, construction, etc. Soon, he was running his own operation. “It was a good honest day’s toil,” he said, “and I don’t think I’ve ever been so contented in me whole life.”

Northern Exposure

The Fusion was born in 1998, an expansion team in MLS, which had kicked off two years earlier with ambitious plans to become the fifth major team sport in the United States. Hudson was hired to work in a community that he had gotten to know so well and also to bring his entertaining views to the Fusion television broadcasts. (A CNN/SI Web site poll selected him the best analyst in MLS.)

The Fusion made the playoffs in ’98 and ’99, eliminated each time in the first round by D.C. United. In 2000, the club got off to a poor start and Coach Ivo Wortmann was fired. Fusion management asked Hudson to turn around things. In his first game, Hudson guided the Fusion to a badly needed victory – an overtime win over United. Afterward, he said, “I’m higher than a hippie at Woodstock” – the first of many colorful quotes during his short reign at Lockhart Stadium.

The Fusion was 11-12-1 under Hudson in his first season, but the club did advance to the championship game of the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament that runs concurrent to the MLS season and includes all registered teams in the country.

Last year, the Fusion was the class of the league throughout the regular season and finished atop the overall standings with a 16-5-5 record. The addition of players such as Yugoslav-U.S. journeyman Preki Radosavljevic, Honduran Alex Pineda Chacon (whom Hudson once said, “is a ballet dancer. If he ran on snow, he wouldn’t leave footprints”) and English veteran Ian Bishop boosted the club’s fortunes and, just as importantly, its previously woeful attendance figures.

The hectic pace took its toll, however, in August when Hudson became disoriented and felt a tingling sensation in his chest and down to his fingertips during halftime of a match at Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium. He was taken to a hospital and diagnosed with exhaustion. After two days of monitoring in Massachusetts and a few days of rest at home, Hudson returned to the sideline with a fresh perspective and a slightly calmer approach to his job.

After the season, the Hudson-Fusion love affair came to a crashing end. Fusion investor Ken Horowitz and MLS officials were at odds over financial commitment, and after more than a month of rumors, the league pulled the plug on the team. The same day MLS announced its decision, United swooped in and signed Hudson to a three-year contract worth an estimated $150,000 per season to replace Rongen.

“That should have been the proudest day of me life,” he said. “And yet it was a melancholy response initially. It was a bittersweet transition of being in Florida and landing with a great program like D.C.’s. There was no pause – foot down on the accelerator as soon as the Fusion guillotine came down and it’s never stopped. It’s been an almighty whirlwind.”

Hudson rented out his old home in Oakland Park, Fla., and packed up for Fairfax County, where he found a place to rent near Reston Town Center. He’ll live with his girlfriend, Sonja, and his golden retriever, Punky. (Hudson was married for a few years in the ’80s and has no children.) The weather is not much to his liking after more than two decades under the Florida sun, but he said he’ll get used to it.

His mission now is to straighten out three-time champion United. And with it comes a much more serious tone from the usually light-hearted coach.

“This circumstance is a very delicate situation because there is already an established set of players,” he said. “But the blunt, sad truth is that this club hasn’t been to the playoffs two consecutive years. . . . I think we’ll galvanize this team and rejuvenate this team. That’s the fervent hope of everybody. But if we realize there are components missing, changes will have to be made. I can’t come in here with a sledgehammer and dismantle it. That’s going to be a gradual, analytical process.

“Hopefully we can achieve enough this year to get the ship turned around and get it on the right setting.”

And if it could be accomplished while having some fun, well, what could be better in Ray Hudson’s wacky world?

“Sometimes we’re all too serious in this business, If some characters like me can make people laugh, make ’em think a little differently, then that’s a good thing. Some people think I’m a nut case, but that’s okay. I’m just enjoying it all.”

Steven Goff

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Soccer Digest, August, 2001 by Michael Lewis

For two decades the former NASL star and current Miami Fusion coach has been the voice and face of Southern Florida soccer

THE SOCCER WORLD ALREADY knows that Ray Hudson has a golden tongue. This year it has discovered that the Miami Fusion coach has the Midas touch as well.

Through the early part of the MLS season, Hudson has the Fusion flying among the league’s elite with a solid defense and opportunistic attack. Not bad for someone who doesn’t have a fancy coaching license or who was offered the job while he was the Fusion’s color commentator on TV broadcasts.

SOCCER DIGEST recently caught up with the passionate Hudson and talked to the native Englishman about coaching, MLS, American soccer, and the Fusion.

SOCCER DIGEST: Why did you decide to take up the offer to coach the Miami Fusion?

RAY HUDSON: This is a very unique situation for me here. This has been my home for 23 years. I came here as a 22-year-old and, at the time, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers took the entire South Florida area by storm.

My coaching here is as if Giorgio Chinaglia stayed in New York, took over the MetroStars, and remained involved with the community. I’ve been very fortunate and lucky. There are other former NASL players who stayed in America who have not been given a chance to be an MLS head coach: Chris Dangerfield in San Jose, Vladislav Bogicevic in New York, and Perry Van Der Beck, who is an assistant coach in Tampa Bay.

When the Fusion came to me, I said: “Anything I can do to help.” It was a genuine interim position. Usually, I don’t think those interims have the faith of their general manager as I had, and they become overlooked.

If I felt that in my heart I couldn’t move this team along, I wouldn’t have done it. Fate moves its hands in strange ways.

SD:. You acquitted yourself well when you took over the team midway through last season. You personally finished with an 11-11-1 record. Now, you’ve sort of rebuilt the team in your image, wouldn’t you say?

RH: The execution of it–the bravery, the ballsy moves–were beyond anything that was ever attempted by the Fusion. So far, so good. I don’t say we have all the answers.

Five months is very little time to reconstruct a team. That was a huge task. We decided to let popular players go and bring in veteran players, and we have done reasonably well so far.

In this league you’re given three darts and an a patch over one eye. The equitable arrangement to make the league financially viable provides an amazing challenge for the teams. There are some restrictions, but there won’t be a New York Cosmos or Secretariat that gets away from the rest of the pack. They were very, very savvy with the construction of the league.

There were some mistakes made early on, I don’t mind saying, but the whole product is getting better. The Americans are pumping blood into the league.

SD: Mistakes such as signing foreign players who didn’t play to their potential or want to play? It’s not easy making the transition to play in this league or live in this country. Is it difficult finding players who can make an impact?

RH: Yes, and I am very, very passionate about this point. There are foreign players out there who are entertaining and come at a small, modest cost. If you’re careful you can find them.

SD: Did you really feel the Fusion would be in such a lofty position these days?

RH: No, even though I knew I had the talent and character on this team. Then we added Chris Henderson, Carlos Llamosa, and Preki. I didn’t think we would gel as quickly as we did. One thing I’m proud of is that the players aren’t happy with the level of success that they have. I mean, are we the perfect beast? No.

The dream is to win it all. This year will see a very intriguing championship match.

SD: It has been proven that teams can turn around in one season. Bob Gansler turned around an 8-24 Kansas City Wizards team into a championship side in a year. Could you do the same?

RH: What he did with that team was truly beyond heroic; it was monumental. That’s the standard to live up to, but I don’t think it’s going to be done again.

SD: What has Honduran forward Alex Pineda Chacon brought to the Fusion?

RH: Alex has been fabulous. Everything I saw from him in all my trips to Honduras, he has shown with us. He’s a wonderfully balanced soccer player; he could run on snow and he wouldn’t leave footprints. He’s a beautiful, delicate little player, a butterfly of a player. Alex is an insightful, precise passer, and he’s also very reliable. He rarely gives the ball up and he is always looking for that right moment.

The one thing that Pineda Chacon has that you cannot coach and cannot introduce to a player is that little bit of fantasy soccer. When some players gain possession of the ball they instinctively know the right time to shoot and the right time to chance the pass to set up another player, and he’s one of them. I love that about his game. It’s something that is a very rare commodity. It’s that little bit of voodoo, like Carlos Valderrama has. It’s that little bit of magic, that element that Preki has. I think Alex brings that to our team. He’s very, very clever.

SD: How would you aproach defending a similar player, say–were he not injured–the MetroStars’ Clint Mathis?

RH: I’d knock him out, bind and gag him, put him in a safe, and send him to the bottom of the ocean. When a kid hits his stride the way he had–with all of that confidence and verve–he’s virtually indefensible. You can only try to contain him. He only needs that crack in the door and he will kick it in.

He’s a golden boy for this country and this league and he’s got everybody’s admiration and respect.

SD: After defeating the Tampa Bay Mutiny earlier this year, you left the stadium without talking to the media because you were so upset with your team’s performance. I heard you went to the beach and sat there thinking until 4 a.m. You are very passionate about your soccer, aren’t you?

RH: Yes, probably too much. I get too emotionally involved, but South Florida is my home and it always has been. I still see shadows of myself and former Strikers players Gerd Muller, Nene Cubillas, and George Best here. This is where I grew up and where I skinned my knees. We inherit a history from those guys and we have to live up to it here in Fort Lauderdale. I won’t allow complacency.

SD: A number of European sides are coming to the U.S. to play against MLS teams. Are those games fair barometers of the quality of MLS?

RH: It’s an age-old problem. When the Strikers played against Lazio, Manchester City, Ipswich, and Sao Paulo, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. If we played them and beat them, their country’s newspaper would say that the team was on holiday and didn’t care.

It’s not a fair, level playing ground for either team. Intelligent people look at the game and ask, “How did the teams compare in certain situations?” And the score doesn’t reflect that. These other teams do come in with a different attitude and we are playing half-cocked in a lot of situations, as well. We’re throwing in a lot of the young kids in to these games because it’s great experience for them.

The FIFA Club World Championship is a bona fide tournament. That would have been a good barometer. That’s the way you can make good comparisons: with meaningful tournaments in a point of the year where you’re not distracted or concerned about injury or anything other than the score. It really does have to be meaningful competition. These friendlies are good exhibition games, but that’s all they are–purely exhibition.

SD: How much of an improvement has there been in the quality of league play from the first season in 1996?

RH: It’s night and day. I sat through those games. I had to broadcast those games. I had to put lipstick on a pig.

The fans are tough to please, however. They’ve been weaned on world-class stars and now they see American blood coming through. You know how far along American players have come? I remember a game in the 1970s with the New York Cosmos with Carlos Alberto coming out of the back. He was 10 yards away from Bobby Smith, an American defender. He looked at him and said, “No.” He wouldn’t give a simple ball to Bobby.

The development of our American boys is absolutely inspiring. The thing is they’re never given credit–especially around the world. It pisses me off. My players can walk on to any English First Division team–and some on to Premiership teams–and play. We have to shake this inferiority complex. We don’t have to bow to anybody.

When I coached the college all-stars this year, I was so emotional seeing players such as the Tampa Bay Mutiny’s Ali Curtis and the Los Angeles Galaxy’s Brian Mullah. This is talent. I think this is the tip of the iceberg. We are so blessed.

SD: How can we get more players to play at this level?

RH: The one thing that is inhibiting, a slight drag, is that the coaches need to encourage expression of these kids more when they’re very young. They need to encourage and stimulate that bon vivant.

We go from A to B to C. Forget about A to B. Look at A to D. If we can do that, we will have accomplished a great deal. The next big challenge for us is how to impress that to our coaches? The country is aching for that type of expression, that bit of Van Gogh.

Everybody talks about us internationally being the next Africa. That will not happen by playing gridiron-caliber football. That’s a gigantic step. That might take generations to accomplish.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Century Publishing
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group

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DC United’s Ray HudsonSportsFan Magazine
By Pete Sweigard
Monday, May 05, 2003
 
 
 

SFM Columnist Pete Sweigard sat down with DC United Coach Ray Hudson prior to the 2003 season. The following interview originally appeared in Issue 12 of SportsFan Magazine.

People like Ray Hudson. Mention his name to DC-area soccer fans and you’ll probably receive a funny Hudson anecdote or one of his trademarked, witty quotes in response. When you churn out one-liners such as, “I’m higher than a hippie at Woodstock” — Hudson’s quip after his first coaching win with the now-defunct Miami Fusion — there’s a tendency to forget about your impressive legacy to US soccer.

Player, coach, television analyst, and fan — Hudson has worn many hats during a unique soccer career that he readily admits was far from scripted. Signed at 17 by hometown club Newcastle United in 1973, Hudson played four years in the English Premier League’s first division before departing for the United States and the NASL’s Ft. Lauderdale Strikers in 1977. Twenty-six years later, Hudson has lived and witnessed firsthand the evolution of U.S. soccer: playing professionally fifteen years in the NASL and APSL, teaching thousands of soccer youth the game, commentating for Miami Fusion broadcasts, and finally, coaching professionally for two MLS squads.

Despite the multitude of roles, Hudson’s outright passion and knowledge of the game have remained constant throughout. His latest transition, from the Miami press box to the coaching box, is no exception. In 2000, Hudson energized the moribund Fusion, leading a club that had won one game prior to his arrival to an 11-12-1 mark for the remainder of the season and a spot in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final. 2001 saw Hudson lead and motivate his Fusion players to the MLS’s best regular season record of 16-5-5. When Miami’s franchise was contracted after the 2001 season, Hudson came to Washington, DC, hoping he could return United to past glory. His first season with United, 2002, ended with a regular season record of 9-14-5.

I sat down with Hudson following a pre-season scrimmage with American University on March 25, 2003. We discussed his career, coaching DC United, and the state of U.S. soccer, among other things. I was struck by the balance Hudson maintained, speaking as a real fan of the game with obvious passion, but without letting that passion consume him. Late in the interview, he alluded to the fact that this sets him apart from others in the sport, for whom, he said, soccer is like a drug.

Passion and perspective rarely go hand-in-hand. Known for his affable nature, Ray Hudson is much more than a good quote. DC fans are truly lucky to have a genuine ambassador of the game.

SportsFan Magazine: You played 11 years in the NASL. How did the style of play and the level of play compare to the MLS in terms of physical and technical ability?

Ray Hudson: I think the MLS is a much more athletic and speedier league. But I still watch the North American Soccer League. The quality of the football and the multitude of world-class players in that league had to spawn some beautiful soccer, much more technical and a lot more skillful perhaps, than MLS.

 

It was a different era. The game’s much faster and much more demanding now than it was then. But the NASL had superlative soccer played by some outstanding, brilliant teams who could certainly more than hold their own in MLS.

SFM: You have a lot of new faces with United this year. As a coach, is it difficult to balance their training and motivate the wide range of ages you have — from Bobby Convey and Santino Quranta to Earnie Stewart and Hristo Stoitchkov?

RH: Yeah, it is. It’s going to be a big challenge just holding the ship together sometimes, because of the different age groups, personalities. But you hope that it does mesh together. The biggest concern for us is the time factor. Reshaping a team in such a short time, and bringing in so many new players, such a variety of new players — it’s going to be something to cobble together. It may take awhile.

SFM: Talk about what Stoitchkov brings to the team. Have you given him any advice on making the transition from player to coach?

RH: Well, I think it’s a unique situation. He’s going to have to learn to separate himself in certain regards. He has a different set of standards to maintain and I think you learn on a day-to-day basis with this. I think he’s had a really big lesson today. (Editor’s note: That day, in a scrimmage against American University, Stoichkov broke the leg of freshman Freddy Llerena in a disputed tackle. The foul drew an immediate red card and ended the scrimmage. On April 9, after a review of the incident, an MLS disciplinary committee suspended Stoitchkov for two games and fined him $2000.) There’s no question that crossing over that line from player to coach is really challenging, but I think Stoitchkov certainly has the mentality and experience to blend the two together. I’m sure he’ll be a big assist to me and really enjoy the job.

SFM: This is your second season in DC. Which are better — the bars in DC or the pubs in London?

RH: Oh, that’s the hardest question you’ve asked so far (joint laughter). You know, I think they’re truly different. One’s a truly social gathering watering hole and the other, I’ve found — American bars and pubs — are much more of a pickup place. So, they’ve both got such wonderful attributes that it’s hard to discriminate. If you held a gun to me head, I’d choose the English pub.

SFM: There you go. Now, you made the decision last year not to pick up Paul Gascoigne. In the end, was it more concerns about character, or had his fitness fallen below the level necessary to play in the MLS?

RH: I would say that it was more on the character side. Paul looked very good in the few practices we had and he showed tremendous ability. But there were some concerns about his off-the-field activities. That’s always been the same with Paul Gascoigne, it’s always dogged him around. He’s certainly not the spring chicken he used to be, but that’s to be expected. It was something that everybody would have liked to see work out, but it just wasn’t to be.

SFM: Can you give us your favorite Gazza story?

RH: A great one while he was here was that he had a bet with one of the guys that he could get a ride home without bumming a ride off anyone on the team. He ended up flagging down a police officer and asking him if he’d be so kind as to escort him home and he did. The guys couldn’t believe that a DC policeman actually recognized him and then took him home.

SFM: I read that in your younger days you had an accounting apprenticeship. Can you even imagine what you’d be doing now if you never played the game of soccer?

RH: Well, it wouldn’t be accounting. (joint laughter). I would have hung up me quill a long time ago. It was a horrible experience, like Dickensian stuff, you know. Sitting in a tiny little office with no windows. Making about ten dollars a week. Virtually having to learn a book as thick as the Encyclopedia Britannica. It was awful. Once Newcastle United offered me a tryout and they signed me the same night — that was one of the greatest days of me life, becoming a professional soccer player and getting out of that awful treadmill that was the working day from nine to five. Thank God me talent was there to save me from that.

 

SFM: Do you follow Newcastle, and do you consider yourself a Newcastle supporter?

 

RH: Oh, of course, absolutely! Black and white ’til I die. It’s a great club. It has such a partisan following, beyond passionate. I would say it’s the greatest supported club in the United Kingdom. The travelling fans are notorious, the Toon Army. It’s always been that way since I was a kid. They’re truly a phenomenal set of fans and the club’s just gone on from strength to strength. It fills everybody that was a Newcastle player with tremendous pride. The very historic club and incredible tradition, the notoriety of their fans — it just makes me proud to be a Geordie, to be a Newcastle boy, and the fact that I played for the team, you know, it’s just wonderful.

 

SFM: I can’t even imagine going from being a fan and local boy to playing for the team. Did the fans at St. James Park (Newcastle’s Stadium) have any songs or cheers for you specifically?

 

RH: Just me name and stuff. I was called Rocky. I had long blond hair. There weren’t any blond players back then and I was a skillful player, so they really took me to heart. Especially being a Newcastle boy. There weren’t many of those who came along.

 

The first time I took the field against Stoke City as a substitute for Newcastle is still burning in me memory like it was yesterday — running onto that field and hearing that deafening sound from all sides. I actually looked around behind me to see who they were shouting for. I didn’t think it was me. It was so much of a shock. It’s a fabulous memory.

SFM: I know that Freddy Adu has kicked around with United. For U.S. fans who can’t imagine a 13-year-old being that good, how would you describe him? Do you think he can make the next U.S. World Cup team?

 

RH: I think there’s a distinct possibility that he could. The World Cup is a long way off, but his talent is light-years ahead of his age. Now, how we can maintain it and keep polishing his trade remains to be seen, but it’s there in abundance, and it’s such a special talent for such a young boy.

 

Personally, he’s such an attractive character. He has a wonderful personality and he’s very grounded. I think the promise is just infinite for Freddy. You always need that slice of luck as well, you gotta have that fortune, but he seems to be waiting for that moment. He’s not going to be scared of the spotlight. He’ll enjoy it, I’m sure. It will be wonderfully interesting to see how that kid comes along.

SFM: As a fan of soccer, do you prefer the English system of relegation and no playoffs, or the MLS’s current format?

 

RH: I have always thought that the true challenge in all leagues around the world is the maintaining of form and that separation of the good stuff from the mediocre stuff. How relentless that competition and struggle is.

 

The playoffs are quirky in their own way. It’s two distinctly different seasons. Your prior season doesn’t stand for too much, other than getting an invitation to the dance. I can’t honestly say that I’ve always appreciated that setup, but it’s the American way, it’s the American mentality, and it’s going to be awhile before that leaves us.

I would love to see the day when you have a league and, whoever finishes top of the league, that one team is the crowning glory. Whether it goes to relegation is a whole different thing. And yet, the buzz and the excitement and the build-up to a playoff system are undeniably attractive. They both have their plusses and minuses, but I think the true champion should be over the [course of the season]. The Supporter’s Shield should have greater relevance. The team with the best record, for me, is the best team. Cup type football is a different set of dynamics, elements, and attitudes altogether. I think we’ll be living with the playoffs for a lot longer.

SFM: I believe you were 8-4-2 at home last year. How do United supporters compare to other soccer supporters in the rest of the world and what would you say to the DC fans going into the 2003 season?

 

RH: I think they’re absolutely a knowledgeable group, no question about that. Every time I played in DC, both against the Diplomats (NASL) and DC United, they had a great appreciation of the good game. They’re very critical and they know their stuff.

 

They’re a very impassioned set of fans. It’s wonderful to have that as your home team. Chicago has a great set of supporters, and there are others all around the league, but DC United fans, I’m not patronizing, they’re just the very best.

SFM: I think you’re in a unique position, coming to the United States and being here the last 20 years, to gauge the growth of the game here. The World Cup last year energized all of U.S. soccer. What are your feelings on the next steps for the MLS and U.S. soccer?

 

RH: I think it’s going to be a progression of circumstances throughout the next four years. The World Cup was an incredible statement [of] how far our game and play has come. That was announced to the world in a very amplified way, and everybody took notice. That’s part of soccer history now.

 

What Bruce Arena achieved with that set of guys was spectacularly phenomenal. It’s undeniable, you’ve got the world’s respect. And behind that was the feeding system, from the college system, from the MLS, on all the different levels leading up to that. Our players were feeding Bruce’s flame. Arena’s genius was that he was so tactically flexible to employ all of those different players from MLS. Pablo Mastroeni’s performance and contribution is a perfect example of how MLS contributed to that wonderful success.

We need the domestic league to keep feeding the national team pool, and I think that will continue. As the [MLS] standards are raised, our football at the national team level will benefit greatly. Without the domestic league, everything gets diluted. I don’t think it would stop it, but it would certainly dilute it.

SFM: Do you think the U.S. can reach the Cup Final in the next three to four World Cups?

 

RH: It’s wonderful speculation, but why not? It’s not as crazy as it once sounded. It’s a distinct possibility. We smelt it and we were so close to the semi-final. My God, that defies belief if you think back just 5 to 10 years ago. Why not us? Why not? We’ve showed how far we’ve progressed, and the challenge is to keep and maintain that progress. That’s not going to come just by turning to a whole different chapter. It’s incremental steps forward, and that’s going to take time. Things are so much in place, it’s going to be irresistible.

 

SFM: You’ve been characterized as fiery, charismatic, and a quote machine by the press? How would you characterize the U.S. soccer press? Well, I guess you were actually a member of the press…

 

RH: Yeah, I love the press. I love the press back home in England. I have no problem in any way, shape, or form with either criticism or praise from journalists or members of the media. It’s all part and parcel to the melodrama of sports.

 

I am who I am. This isn’t an act or a show — it’s just me. People find it interesting or stimulating or controversial, which is all good. It’s professional athletics. It’s the greatest game in the world. I’ve played it at a good level and I can keep adding to it. It’s gone wonderfully well, and it’s been a joy ride for me.

I don’t honestly know how long I want to stay in the game. Certain people are driven by it, cannot live without it. I’ve never really pursued it to that extent. I never really went looking for a coaching position. I never went in search of even the TV commentary thing. One thing led to the other.

I was talking to Pat Riley in Miami and he was saying the same thing. He got pushed into it, as well. But once you’re in it, it’s wonderful, it’s great. In me quietest moments I wonder sometimes, because it’s hard, it’s emotionally very, very hard. People don’t realize what a sponge the game is. As a player it’s a breeze. You should never want to be anything else other than a player. I’ve been a player and my greatest memories are as a player.

This job can be very, very hard and it can draw on you. Unless you’ve got that real burning desire and that hunger to remain in it, it can hurt you. And I’ll never let that happen. I know that in me heart of hearts. When I stop really enjoying the game, I won’t tolerate it. I’ll say that’s it. I’m done here and I’m walking away from it now. I know that.

SFM: Thanks for the time and good luck to you and DC United this season.

_______________________________________________________________________________

Ray of Sunshine

Networks Should Be On Hudson ‘Like Stink On A Monkey’

 


 

I’ll go on the record right now. This story won’t do Ray Hudson total justice.

You would have to listen to him live to get the real essence of this man’s announcing abilities.

So, just who is Ray Hudson? He could very well be the best-kept secret in Major League Soccer. He is a former professional soccer player who works as the community outreach manager with the Miami Fusion and is arguably the best color commentator in the league — although you won’t get an argument from me.

That is, when you can hear him. The Fusion will televise only six matches this season on its regional broadcast partner, the Sunshine Network, so Hudson’s talents are either being ignored or wasted.

Ironically and amazingly, this is happening in a sport that is sorely lacking in insightful commentators who can paint a picture of a soccer match in an intelligent, entertaining way.

Hudson pours so much passion and enthusiasm into his work it sounds as though he’s making love to the match and the sport itself.

So, why isn’t this man doing games for ESPN, Fox or someone else?

I consider myself fortunate. I “discovered” Hudson and his vibrant, colorful comments while watching a late-season match last year between the New York/New Jersey MetroStars and Tampa Bay Mutiny, when regular MetroStars color man Tommy Smyth had to meet some other commitments.

Hudson and his English accent turned out to be the highlight of the match, which incidentally, turned into rare win, 2-1, for the visiting MetroStars.

When Eduardo Hurtado scored a goal, Hudson noted the MetroStars forward had all the time in the world to shoot. “He could have had a cup of tea and scored,” he said.

When a defender was literally right on the back of his man, Hudson said “he was on him like stink on a monkey.”

When a defender allowed his man to get by him, Hudson noted, “The defender stood out like Madame Tussaud’s.” (For those who are not familiar with the famous wax museum, Hudson meant that the defender was a statue).

And on it went. He had livened up a meaningless match and brought a smile to at least one viewer’s face.

“They weren’t two of the highest-caliber teams, but it was a tremendous game,” Hudson said. “There was a battle going on down there. It came out a battle royale and wonderful entertainment.”

And Hudson brought it to another level with his entertaining, descriptive comments. “These things come out completely naturally,” he said.

“When you’ve been at this game as long as I have and played it at a high level, you instantly recognize [nuances] and bring it to people’s attention. I like to interject some kind of levity because people take the game too seriously too many times. It’s a melodrama and not Shakespeare.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that soccer comes so natural to the 45-year-old Hudson. After all, he performed for Newcastle United in England before coming to the U.S. in 1977 to play for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the old North American Soccer League. He became a fan favorite, team captain and NASL all-star. He liked it so much that he decided to stay in south Florida.

When the Fusion debuted in 1998, investor-operator Ken Horowitz asked him to come aboard, although Hudson did not have a minute of broadcasting experience.

While Hudson claims he is far from a homer, his biggest gripe with American soccer announcers is that not enough credit is given to the players.

“Our game needs to be bubbled up,” he said of MLS. “It’s not Manchester United vs. Chelsea or Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, where the purity of everything will come out every 30 seconds.

“Our guys in MLS don’t get a lot of praiseworthy comments… They don’t give players enough credit, such as a good defensive tackle. Sometimes that is viewed an offensive failure and not a great play. Those things are not picked upon in MLS.”

Take for example, Hudson said, a goal that the Fusion’s Henry Gutierrez scored off an Eric Wynalda set-up in a 1-1 draw with the New England Revolution last week. Hudson felt the Revs announcers did not give the players enough credit.

“Wynalda had the ball and the defense was retreating,” Hudson said. “Henry Gutierrez already was making his run. Eric, instead of threading the ball on the ground, he scooped it up to Gutierrez. It was the only way he could have gotten the ball.

“It was pretty as a cherry on a Sundae… I would be hanging out of the television booth because it was a beautiful goal… Those moments don’t come along often. Players should lauded for that.”

Hudson said that he will point out the deficiencies of the Fusion, although he admitted that he tries to accentuate the positive.

“If your team isn’t playing well, you try to deflect the negatives of how your team is playing,” he said. “Give the other team the accolades. It’s a very, very hard line to walk. Seamus Malin [New England Revolution color man] is the best in the league at being truly critical of his team without being negative. He’s not a team apologist or a team cheerleader. I’ve learned a lot from him.”

And from some other American announcers as well, although they do not work in soccer. Hudson’s influences include basketball commentator Dick Vitale and pro football’s — yeah the other football — John Madden.

“I wasn’t interested in college basketball until I listened to Dick Vitale,” Hudson said. “My girlfriend told me this was the guy I should watch. He isn’t an X’s and O’s guy. He is exciting. He elevates the game, brings it to a higher level because of his pandemonium. I only watch college basketball when Dick Vitale is doing the game.

“They [Vitale and Madden] played on emotion, instead of these technocrats who break the game down.”

Beyond his fabulous one-liners, Hudson felt one of his finest moments came in tandem with Fusion announcer Craig Minervini, when they described a build-up between D.C. United’s Jaime Moreno and Marco Etcheverry that led to a goal last season.

“In between Minervini’s descriptions, I was punctuating it,” Hudson said, “saying things like, ‘That’s beautiful.’ He scored the goal and then Minervini went off. The interplay between us, it was like doing a tango.”

Unfortunately, Fusion fans won’t be able to hear Hudson and Minervini tango on too many occasions this season. The Fusion’s six local broadcasts is down from 15 in 1998 and 11 last year.

“I don’t do enough games,” he said. “It’s like being a player. You need games. You need games. It’s a question of being more efficient and refining your art.”

Hudson’s next match isn’t until June 3, when the Fusion plays at New England. There has been talk of Hudson doing some games for ESPN in June when Smyth has commitments to work the European Championship, but that’s all it has been right now — talk.

Hopefully, someone out there will be as bold enough as Ken Horowitz and “take a chance” with Ray Hudson and let him do what he does best — talk about soccer.

More than anything else, they owe it to a sport that needs all the help and hype it can get.

Michael Lewis covers soccer for the New York Daily News. His third book, Soccer For Dummies, will be published in the spring.

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