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Colombia weighs on Valderrama

The civil unrest and violence in his homeland cause concerns for MLS' assists leader.

By RODNEY PAGE

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2000


TAMPA -- By all accounts, Carlos Valderrama is living the good life. In the twilight of his career, the 39-year-old recently completed his best Major League Soccer season.

He recorded 26 assists, which shattered the league record of 19 he set in 1997 with Tampa Bay. He made his fifth straight MLS All-Star Game appearance. He played in all 32 games and logged an MLS career-high 2,897 minutes.

The Mutiny begin the playoffs tonight against Los Angeles, another stage for the playmaking midfielder to show off his skills.

Valderrama also loves Tampa. He and his wife, Claribeth, bought a home, and his three children, Alan, Kenny and Carlos, go to school in Tampa.

"(Tampa) has always been my first choice," Valderrama said through a team interpreter. "I like it here very much. I plan on staying here for a long time."

But Valderrama hasn't been worry-free this season.

His native Colombia is in a civil war between drug lords and the government. The Colombian government wants farmers to destroy their poppy fields, which are used to make cocaine. The farmers and drug lords are resisting with violence.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Colombia has seven kidnappings per day, usually people with families who can pay lucrative ransoms.

Valderrama's parents, Carlos and Juana Palacios, along with nine siblings, live in Santa Marta, a coastal town in north Colombia. Carlos Sr. had a kidney transplant a year ago, and Valderrama is in frequent contact.

As one of Colombia's most recognizable athletes, Valderrama is adored in his country and doubts anything would happen to his family. But that doesn't stop him from worrying.

"Soccer players and athletes in Colombia are very well respected," said Valderrama, who is a Colombian citizen. "I've never had any problems. Of course I worry about them. I think of them all the time and the circumstances they are living in. But there's never been a problem."

When the season ends, Valderrama said he and his family will visit Colombia. And when his career ends, he said he would have no hesitation returning to Colombia if an opportunity to coach presented itself.

"I plan on coaching and I would like to coach in Colombia," he said. "But anywhere there is a suitable offer to coach I would coach. It doesn't matter if it's in Colombia or somewhere else."

All Valderrama can do now is hope things get better in Colombia and that his family stays safe. He said he has thought about bringing his parents to the United States, but it would be difficult. One of his brothers, Roger, played this summer for the Minnesota Thunder of the A-League.

As for when his career will end, Valderrama said that's not up to him.

"The ball is in the league's court," he said. "I want to play another season. I feel fine. But they have to decide whether to sign another contract or not."

MLS has an option to renew Valderrama's contract, which is for the league maximum of $270,000. As a single entity, MLS negotiates all player contracts.

After a season like 2000, Mutiny coach Tim Hankinson hopes "El Pibe" will return.

"I know Carlos has had some issues back home and some things he's needed to take care of," Hankinson said. "He doesn't talk much about it and he certainly doesn't let it affect his play. Carlos is Carlos. ... He's a very important part of this team."

The league also will be in negotiations with Mutiny forward Mamadou Diallo, who scored 26 goals in 28 games to lead the league. If Diallo returns, it would help him if Valderrama did the same.

"Pibe is the best in the world," Diallo said. "He's able to find the player when you don't think it's possible. I don't do as well if Pibe's not there."

TONIGHT: MUTINY VS. LOS ANGELES

WHAT: MLS best-of-three quarterfinal.

WHEN/WHERE: 8; Raymond James Stadium, Tampa.

TV/RADIO: ESPN2; WWBA-AM 1040, WAMA-AM 1550 (Spanish).

RECORD: Galaxy 14-10-8 (No. 5 seeding, 50 points). Mutiny 16-12-4 (No. 4 seeding, 52 points).

COACHES: Galaxy -- Sigi Schmid (31-19-8, second season). Mutiny -- Tim Hankinson (39-38-4, third season).

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Galaxy -- M Cobi Jones, F Luis Hernandez, M Mauricio Cienfuegos, G Kevin Hartman, D Robin Fraser. Mutiny -- M Carlos Valderrama, F Mamadou Diallo, M Steve Ralston, G Scott Garlick, D Joe Addo.

NOTES: The Mutiny has lost six straight playoff games dating to Oct. 2, 1996, when it eliminated Columbus in Game 3. It is 2-7 all-time in playoff games. Tampa Bay has not scored a playoff goal in three games and a total of 324 minutes. The last playoff goal came Oct. 5, 1997, by Gilmar in the 35th minute against Columbus. Mutiny F Eric Quill is out with a right ankle sprain. He could return for Game 2. D Chad McCarty is with the U.S. Olympic team. Los Angeles M Sasha Victorine, M Peter Vagenas and D Danny Califf are also with the U.S. Olympic team. The Mutiny has not played any of the other seven playoff teams in the post-season. Tampa Bay has only played against D.C. United and Columbus, and both failed to make the playoffs. The Mutiny set a team record for points (218) and assists (94) in a season and was second all-time in goals (62) but has been shut out seven times, which tied a club record. Los Angeles has advanced to the playoffs five straight seasons. It appeared in the 1996 and '99 MLS Cup match and is 10-8 all-time in the playoffs. The Galaxy is 4-5-1 in its last 10 games and has lost two straight. Game 2 is 10:30 p.m. Wednesday at Los Angeles.

-- Compiled by Rodney Page.

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