St. Petersburg Times Online: Sports

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Mutiny hoping Mondelo is final piece of its title puzzle

Tampa Bay kicks off season No. 6 with a new coach directing a familiar lineup.

By RODNEY PAGE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 7, 2001


Tampa Bay kicks off season No. 6 with a new coach directing a familiar lineup.

TAMPA -- Alfonso Mondelo always thought of himself as a soccer coach. In 1981, just 22 years old, Mondelo took his first coaching job with the semi-pro club New York Hota Bavarians.

That led to jobs with the Eastern New York Soccer Association, the Puerto Rican national team, the U.S. under-15 national team and the Long Island Rough Riders of the A-League.

But Mondelo didn't really become part of the coaching fraternity until the fall of 1998. That's when he was fired by Major League Soccer's New York/New Jersey MetroStars with one game remaining in the regular season -- after guiding the team to its first berth in the playoffs.

"They say you're not truly a coach until you get fired for the first time," Mondelo said. "I guess I became a coach after I left New York."

Mondelo was replaced by the high profile Bora Milutinovic, former coach of the U.S. and Nigerian national teams. The MetroStars faltered in a hurry under Milutinovic, but Mondelo never said a word.

Instead, he dusted himself off and continued coaching, this time with a greater appreciation of the profession. He got his second chance in MLS on Dec. 6, when he was named the Mutiny's coach, the team's fourth in six seasons.

When the Mutiny takes the field tonight against Dallas, Mondelo, 42, will be about the only new face. He inherits a team that was 16-12-4 and earned a No. 4 seed in the playoffs.

He has the league's all-time assists leader in Carlos Valderrama, last season's league scoring leader in Mamadou Diallo and one of the league's top goalkeepers in Scott Garlick.

He has what many in MLS believe to be one of the top contenders for the MLS Cup.

The defense will be weakened because Steve Trittschuh broke his right leg and may miss three months, but the Mutiny has added defender Craig Demmin, a first-round pick from the A-League's Rochester Rhinos. Demmin has been recovering from a sprained knee ligament but should return soon, perhaps tonight.

"This is a different situation (than New York)," said Mondelo, a native of Spain who moved to Queens, N.Y., with his family in 1971. "The MetroStars were a team in transition. It was a rebuilding situation, and we were trying to find the right combinations. Here, it's a pretty solid team. The main thing I had to do was get an understanding of each player and how they fit in. What we have to do this year is make sure there is a growth from last year."

Mondelo has vowed to shore up the defense, but it won't be with new players. He will play three in the back: Joe Addo, Demmin or Ritchie Kotschau, and Chad McCarty.

Josh Keller still will be the defensive midfielder behind Valderrama. The only possible change is another forward to pair with Diallo, someone the Mutiny has been seeking but is yet to acquire.

General manager Bill Manning knew his team was one of the better ones in MLS last season. What he thought the team needed was a change in leadership. Manning and coach Tim Hankinson agreed on few things, and when the Mutiny was swept by Los Angeles in the first round of the playoffs, Hankinson was fired.

After a monthlong search, Manning opted for the familiar Mondelo. Manning was general manager at Long Island when Mondelo was the coach.

What the players appreciate is Mondelo's fairness.

"He's given everyone an opportunity to either play themselves into the team or play themselves out of the team," McCarty said. "Whether it's the same guys as last year or different guys, everyone has had a chance to show him what he can do. That's one of the major differences from last year."

Diallo, who had more than one run-in with Hankinson last season, gives Mondelo high praise. At least so far.

"He's a good guy, a nice person," Diallo said. "He's done a lot of things for me already. I want to score even more goals to make him happy. But even if I don't score more goals and we win the championship, that is the most important thing."

Winning the championship is the goal of all 12 teams as they start the season today. Mondelo is familiar with championships. His 1995 Long Island club won the USISL Pro League title.

An MLS championship, however, would be more gratifying. And it would be his first as a "real" coach.

"What happened in the past is over," Mondelo said. "I didn't agree with it at the time, but you have to go on. I think I'm in a better situation now."

Tonight: Mutiny at Dallas

WHEN/WHERE: 8:30; Cotton Bowl.

TV/RADIO: Ch. 38; WWBA-AM 1040, WAMA-AM 1550 (Spanish).

RECORDS: Season opener.

COACHES: Dallas -- Mike Jeffries. Mutiny -- Alfonso Mondelo.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Mutiny -- M Carlos Valderrama (26 assists in 32 games in 2000), F Mamadou Diallo (26 goals in 28 games), M Steve Ralston (been with club since 1996), G Scott Garlick (fifth in league with 1.53 (goals-against average), D Chad McCarty (2000 Olympian). Dallas -- F Ariel Graziani (15 goals, three assists), M Jason Kreis (team's all-time leading scorer with 165 points), G Matt Jordan (seven shutouts last season), D Eric Dade (missed only one game), M Ted Eck (147 games with Burn).

NOTES: Mutiny defender Steve Trittschuh is out after breaking his right leg in practice Wednesday. Fellow defender Craig Demmin and midfielder Josh Keller are questionable with right knee strains. M Albert Munoz (right ankle sprain) and F Amos Magee (right hamstring strain) are questionable. Burn midfielder Chad Deering will not play because of a red card suspension in last year's final playoff game. F Aleksey Korol is out with a right knee strain. This is the first time the Mutiny has opened the season on the road. ... Diallo's first game in MLS last season was April 1 at Dallas, a 1-0 Mutiny loss. Diallo later had two two-goal games against the Burn.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.