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College star makes adjustment to MLS

Ali Curtis, the man at Duke, had a good debut supporting Mutiny scoring machine Mamadou Diallo.

By RODNEY PAGE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2001


TAMPA -- For four years, Ali Curtis was a big man on campus. He wasn't as widely recognized as his fellow Duke athletes on the basketball team, but in soccer circles, he was a man among boys.

He scored 53 goals and had 28 assists in his time as Duke's top forward. In the 2000 season, his senior year, Curtis was named by the Missouri Athletic Club as college soccer's Player of the Year.

Several publications listed Curtis as a "can't miss" prospect. The Mutiny, desperate for a forward to play next to Mamadou Diallo, selected Curtis with the second overall pick in Major League Soccer's SuperDraft.

Armed with the confidence of being a top pick and one of college soccer's best players, Curtis, 22 and originally from Milan, Mich., figured the transition would be easy. But he soon found most players in MLS were college All-Americans.

In his first few months of preseason practice, Curtis felt like he was driving a Yugo at the Indianapolis 500.

"It was a huge difference," Curtis said. "It was a bigger difference than I could've ever expected. When I first came in here, things went well, but after that it was really difficult. I was struggling in practice, struggling in scrimmage games. It was only a matter of time. I knew I could make the adjustment, I just needed patience. It's a long season, and I'm going to have good games and bad games, but as long as I improve, it'll be all right."

Curtis quickly realized that his teammates, and especially opponents, didn't care about his feats at Duke. If he was going to make it in MLS, he had to keep up.

So Curtis worked harder, stayed after practice and spent time with coach Alfonso Mondelo. But going into last week's opener at Dallas, Curtis still didn't know where he stood.

Fellow rookies Gus Kartes and Devin Barclay also were competing for the second forward position. Just before game time, Mondelo informed Curtis that he would start next to Diallo.

"I didn't know if I was going to play 90 minutes or one minute," Curtis said. "I was nervous a couple hours before the game, but as soon as the game got started and I had a few touches, I relaxed."

And he played a big part in the 4-2 win. Curtis scored the winner in the second half. After another good week of practice, Curtis is scheduled to start again tonight against Columbus in the Mutiny's home opener.

"He responded to the confidence we had in him," Mondelo said. "He did a credible job, which will earn him a start (tonight).

"He came in on a high (in preseason) and he scored a goal in our first preseason game. After that, he began to struggle. The speed of play, the decision-making, the pressure that was being put on by the other team, it took him a while to adjust to that. I think getting that goal last week gave him confidence that he can score against MLS teams."

If Curtis continues to show the talent that made him a star at Duke, it will make the Mutiny doubly dangerous up front. Diallo, last year's goal scoring champ with 26 goals in 28 games, was a marked man in an offensive system that used one forward.

With another forward to cover, things could open up for Diallo. He scored a goal last week, but that was on a penalty kick.

Diallo said he doesn't mind spreading the wealth, even if it means scoring less.

"If I score 30 goals and we don't win the championship, it's nothing to me," Diallo said. "If I score 20 goals or less and we still win the championship, then I've done my job. Everybody knows who I am now. I know it's going to be more difficult. But with another player next to me, it will take some of the pressure off. It will make us a better team."

Curtis, a rookie, understands his role. He was in Diallo's shoes for four years as Duke's go-to player. Now he's just another contributor hoping to play.

"If I can somehow take the pressure off of him by getting an assist here or a goal there, then I'll be helping the team," Curtis said. "I think that's why they drafted me. Mamadou's going to get double- and triple-teamed, so I need to take pressure off of him."

The way Mondelo looks at it, anything Curtis does early in the season is gravy. He wants his new forward to be at his best near the end of the season.

"We told him to work at his own pace and that we had confidence in him," Mondelo said. "There was no time frame for him. It didn't matter if he was here in the beginning, but we wanted him there at the end of the season in the championship game."

Tonight: Mutiny vs. Columbus

WHEN/WHERE: 7, Raymond James Stadium.

RADIO: WWBA-AM 1040, WAMA-AM 1550 (Spanish).

RECORDS: Columbus -- 0-0-1. Mutiny -- 1-0.

COACHES: Crew -- Tom Fitzgerald. Mutiny -- Alfonso Mondelo.

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Crew -- F Jeff Cunningham, G Mark Dougherty, M Brian Maisonneuve, M John Wilmar Perez, F Dante Washington. Mutiny -- M Carlos Valderrama, F Mamadou Diallo, M Steve Ralston, G Scott Garlick, F Ali Curtis.

NOTES: The Mutiny's defense will be without Chad McCarty (broken left ankle) and Steve Trittschuh (broken left leg) for about two months. D Chris Houser retired because of another bout with colitis, so the defense is suddenly thin. Rookie Craig Demmin, John Maessner, Kalin Bankov and Ritchie Kostschau must stop Columbus' speed up front. M Josh Keller (sprained right knee) will play after missing the opener. Crew F Brian McBride (strained ligament, right knee), M Duncan Oughton (sprained left ankle) and M Roland Aguilera (red card suspension) are out. The Mutiny leads the series 13-7, including two home wins last season by an aggregate 8-2. Tampa Bay has won the past seven matches against Columbus. The first 6,000 fans will receive a Mutiny/Unitedhealthcare T-shirt. -- Compiled by Rodney Page.

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