Despite being taken on the current Mutiny trip, defender Chris Houser feels left out this season.
By RODNEY PAGE
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2000
There was Chris Houser, standing on the plush grass at Pepin/Rood Stadium playing a Sunday afternoon pickup game against players from the University of Tampa. A day earlier, Houser never took off his warmup suit in the Mutiny's 3-3 tie with Chicago.
Now he was playing with a bunch of thirtysomethings in front of no fans. It's been that kind of season for Houser, a fan favorite in his 1998 rookie year but now relegated to bench warmer.
"I had to play with a bunch of old guys that couldn't run," Houser said. "We got beat 8-1, but at least I played."
Houser hasn't played for the Mutiny since the 90th minute of an Aug. 2 loss to Chicago. He made the trip to Columbus for tonight's game against the Crew, and he'll be available for Saturday's game at Kansas City, but before this, he hadn't made a road trip since June 24 at Miami. Houser is on this trip because defensive midfielders Josh Keller and Dominic Kinnear exceeded 21 yellow-card points Saturday against Chicago and were given one-game suspensions, and defender Chad McCarty's bruised right ankle might not be able to take 90 minutes of play.
Otherwise, Houser likely would be home, biding his time hunting, fishing or bodyboarding at the beach.
Now he might get minutes in his most disappointing season.
"It's frustrating," Houser said. "It gets more frustrating when I'm left at home. I'm not really in the plans. It's like there's nothing for me. I want to be part of the community and part of the team, but sometimes I don't feel that way."
Houser appeared to have a promising career as a central defender and a Mutiny spokesman. At 6 feet 4, 216 pounds, Houser is an intimidating defender who isn't afraid of physical play.
He logged just over 2,000 minutes in 1998. He spent many more hours making public appearances and television and radio commercials for the Mutiny.
But during the 1999 preseason, on a trip to Costa Rica, Houser came down with colitis, a colon inflammation that kept him in the hospital for two weeks. He lost 20 pounds and struggled the whole season to rebuild his endurance. This season he returned to full strength but has never fit into coach Tim Hankinson's plans. Defenders Steve Trittschuh and Joe Addo have played well, so the player known by teammates and fans as the "Undertaker" took a seat on the bench. He has played in three games for 56 total minutes. "Steve and Joe have played very well in the back," Hankinson said. "Right now there's no need to change those guys, and that's where Houser would play. I can see the signs. I know it's not a popular decision. But sometimes decisions aren't popular."
The signs hang from the Raymond James Stadium walls at nearly every home game. They read "No Houser, No Fans," or "Hey coach, do the math, put in number 20."
Houser has almost accepted his fate. Early in the season he spoke frequently with Hankinson and general manager Bill Manning about a trade. Both assured Houser he was an integral part of the team, if not this season, then next.
Now Houser wonders where he'll be next season.
"I don't know what I'm going to do next year," he said. "I've got to play. I'm good enough to play in the league. I'd love to stay in Tampa, but the bottom line is, if I'm not going to play, I've got to go somewhere else. I always thought when I first came here that I'd stay my whole career. I thought people would come out to see Chris Houser play. But if I'm not playing ...
"This is a challenge, but you know what? The season's over for me. I don't want to say that, but that's the way it is."
Houser, 27, is under contract with Major League Soccer for next season.
"I don't even want to think about next season yet," he said. "I hope I'm still here, but I don't know if that's possible. I like my teammates. I know Steve and Joe have played well this season, and I'm not saying I should start over them. I just want to be treated fairly."