For our second post I decided to focus on a more recent team-no-more, as well as one from the place I’ve called home for the last four years, Tampa Bay. Enjoy the tale of the Tampa Bay Mutiny, a team that begs the question: If a team is really good but no one is around to see it, how long will it be until said team folds?
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Despite being the second most-played youth sport in America (behind only basketball), soccer has had a difficult time capturing the nation’s imagination on a professional level. Outside of the meteoric rise and fall of the NASL in the late 70s thanks to teams like the legendary New York Cosmos and all-time great players like Pele, Johan Cruyff, and Franz Beckenbauer, there had been nothing even resembling a successful professional soccer league in the United States before the formation of Major League Soccer in 1996.
Siphoning the momentum and popularity boost afforded the sport thanks to a hugely successful turn hosting the 1994 World Cup, MLS kicked off in stadiums around the country two years later, including a team in Florida that would be the cream of the crop in the standings that first season, the Tampa Bay Mutiny. That success and that team would not last long however, thanks to factors both benign (low attendance, high stadium rent) and malicious (embezzlement!). Within a stretch of six years the Mutiny would emerge, fly high for a season, slowly decline, and ultimately fade into the Gulf sunset.
To be clear, all signs indicated that the Mutiny should be successful, yet looking at it now the team never had a chance at success. From start to finish the Mutiny were orphans, as the franchise was never able to attract an owner, instead being owned and operated by Major League Soccer itself. Tampa Bay Times sportswriter Rodney Page, who has worked for the paper since 1996 and covered the Mutiny for several years, was kind enough to speak to me about the franchise and says the team never even got close to finding an owner.
“They didn’t come that close at all,” according to Page. “They never found anyone that would sink that much money in because frankly if you did own the team you had to get out of that stadium and had to get your own stadium built. There were some talks with groups that wanted to build a stadium on the other side of town, but that never came to fruition.”
The stadium in question was originally The Big Sombrero, Tampa Stadium, with the team moving to Raymond James Stadium when that facility opened in 1999. Both sites were primarily NFL venues, with seating capacities of 74,301 and 65,857, respectively. Into these cavernous stadiums the Mutiny were never able to average more than 13,106 fans, which they achieved in the first season at Ray Jay. Other than that new-stadium-smell-aided season, the largest average attendance the team was able to draw was in their inaugural season, when 11, 679 fans “flocked” to the team’s matches, giving them the second-lowest attendance in the league in that first season.
(Notice the many empty seats in prime locations around the stadium)
One can not blame the lack of support on poor play that first season, as the Mutiny finished at the top of the table with a record of 20-12, becoming the first team to win the (ironically named) Supporters’ Shield, given to the MLS team that finishes with the best record each season. This on-field success was due largely to a trio of talented players, each of which took home hardware at the end of the season.
Roy Lassiter won the league’s Golden Boot, netting 27 goals, which is still tied for the most in a single MLS season. Steve Ralston was named the Rookie of the year, and would go on to have a long and distinguished career in MLS, holding the league record of career assists at the time of his retirement in 2010. But the brightest star in the Mutiny lineup, and one of the brightest in all of Major League Soccer, was Carlos Valderrama, a man who took home the MVP award following the league’s first season, made four MLS All-Star team appearances with Tampa Bay, holds the single-season record for assists in a season (26, a number MLS has called “unbreakable”), and was named the MLS All-Time Best XI side in 2005.
Valderrama, known as “El Pibe” (the Kid), was a Colombian player known for his mop of flowing blonde curls and brilliant midfield play. You know who I’m talking about. This guy:
Page described Valderrama as being a bit of an introvert in his personal life, standing in stark contrast to his on-field persona. He also remembered the star being a dedicated family man that enjoyed raising his family in the Tampa area. Pointedly, Page also recalls him being an exacting professional who expected much of those who played with him.
“He was very much demanding of his teammates,” Page said. “If the young kids were messing around or anything he was the guy who set them straight and he was very professional in that way. He was so creative on the field that he expected you to be ready for anything at any time and he basically didn’t tolerate fools. You had to keep up. He was very much like a second coach type of guy.”
As a bonus, please enjoy this gallery of children and opponents wearing Valderrama wigs that the Mutiny sold at the stadium:
(I apologize for all the watermarks, but your boy does NOT have Getty Images money)
Anyway, led by that group of stars, the Mutiny stormed into the inaugural MLS playoffs with the Eastern Conference’s top seed and made it to the conference finals, where they were on the losing end of the league’s first true upset, losing to eventual champions D.C. United. The upset loss isn’t the only thing of note that happened late in that first season, however, as scandal hit the team, starting them on a course that would take them from first to worst to non-existence.
Because this team played in the domain of Florida Man, between April and August of that 1996 season the team’s Director of Finance, Mark Fortunat, embezzled $100,000 from the team’s (already meager) ticket and novelty sales, something that came to light during the MLS playoffs according to a story in the Palm Beach Post (details on the embezzlement case and trial have proven surprisingly hard to come by).
Rodney Page’s thoughts when reminded of the embezzlement case are pretty revealing of the state of the Mutiny and their standing among the media.
“I remember at the time thinking ‘Wow the Mutiny have $100,000?’” he said. “I didn’t know they had that much money.”
Team President and GM Farrukh Quraishi-despite not being an active part of Fortunat’s scheme and actually playing a major role in unearthing the wrongdoing-shouldered much of the blame for the embezzlement case as well as the team’s low attendance numbers and was fired. Quraishi had been a mainstay in Tampa Bay’s soccer scene since his stint as a player on the popular Tampa Bay Rowdies sides of the 70s and 80s in the NASL, and remained active in soccer even after his firing, first with the United Soccer League and then serving as the President and GM of the revived Rowdies from 2014-2015. The firing of Quraishi was seen as unjust by some in the organization, including 1996 MLS Coach of the Year Thomas Rongen, who left the Mutiny and took over as head coach of the New England Revolution as a result.
Following the loss of their successful GM and coach, and now being run by a executive from MLS, the team’s play started to dip, with the team record falling to 17-15 in 1997 before dropping off a cliff to 12-20 in 1998. Curious personnel moves such as trading Valderrama to the Miami Fusion and a disastrous trade of Roy Lassiter for D.C. United’s Roy Wegerle (Wegerle played just 12 games with Tampa Bay before retiring, while Lassiter notched 36 goals in two season with D.C.) are the obvious culprits here, and such moves can potentially be attributed to a lack of vision for the team’s future created by the lack of an owner.
1999 saw the Mutiny improve slightly, going 14-18 in their new digs at Raymond James stadium. While the new stadium was an extremely small and temporary blessing for the team’s attendance numbers, in the long run the more expensive rent on the facility only helped accelerate the Mutiny’s demise. 2000 saw the team add Senegalese player Mamadou Diallo, the Golden Boot winner for that season with 26 goals. Behind the star striker the Mutiny were able to enjoy one last taste of success, going 16-12-4, finishing second in the East. The final season for the team was also their worst, as they went an abysmal 4-21-2.
Throughout their six seasons the team had failed to draw even 14,000 fans a game to their enormous and expensive home venues, and never got all that close to finding a permanent owner. The league engaged in discussions with the Glazer family, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the very stadium the Mutiny played in, and while some accounts say the sides were close to an agreement before MLS asked for more from the family, there are those like Rodney Page that do not believe the discussions were ever THAT serious.
“I think they kind of saw it as a money loser for them,” he said. “They didn’t see the potential in the league and in the Mutiny, obviously. It’s easy to see why, with no crowds and no stadium, and the team wasn’t very good at the end.”
With the Glazers deciding not to save the team, the Mutiny were out of options and out of time, and the MLS contracted them along with the Miami Fusion following the 2001 season. The Glazer family WOULD eventually get in the soccer business, however, as they purchased the English behemoths Manchester United in 2003, which feels like a better business decision than the Mutiny could have ever been.
Soccer did eventually return to Florida in 2015, with the introduction of Orlando City FC to the MLS in 2015, a team that was able to pull average attendance of over 30,000 for their first two seasons while playing in Camping World Stadium, a football stadium, before moving to their own soccer-specific venue in 2017. Those numbers made Orlando City the second-best attended team in Major League Soccer, which now boasts 22 teams across the US and Canada.
As for Tampa Bay, the area is making a push for another MLS team, hoping to get the resurrected Rowdies franchise from the USL to the big time, with an actual owner this time (and a ferociously dedicated one at that). Given the enthusiasm the community has shown for the new Rowdies as well as the size of the Tampa Bay Media market (11th nationally) and the team’s stadium plan (having been to multiple Rowdies games since moving here I can confirm that the current stadium is a gem and the renovations to get it up to MLS standards look amazing) being completely privately funded, optimism is running high that now is the time for Major League soccer to succeed in the bay area.
Still, Page is among those urging cautious optimism when talking about the Rowdies and Major League Soccer.
“I don’t know, it’s not a slam dunk,” he said. “[Rowdies home stadium] Al Lang holds 7,000 and it’s not like they’re selling out every game. [But] if they get permission to make that an 18,000 seat stadium on the waterfront in St. Petersburg they have a chance to create a bit of a buzz. St. Petersburg is so different than it used to be, it really is booming and there’s a lot of young people downtown now and I think they can capitalize on that. I think they can pull it off just because things are so different now.”
That difference in attitude and community is one of the primary reasons Page feels that the Rowdies have the potential to succeed while the Mutiny failed all those years ago, despite their initial success.
“I think in retrospect [the Mutiny] was doomed from the beginning,” Page said. “They probably could have gone and won the championship and people would have cared for a day and then moved on.”
Team Name: Tampa Bay Mutiny
From: Tampa. Florida
Years of Operation: 1996-2001
Home Field: Tampa Stadium (1996-1998), Raymond James Stadium (1999-2001)
Hall of Famer: Frank Yallop (Canadian Soccer HOF)
Award Winners: Carlos Valderrama (1996 MVP, 1996 and 1997 All-Star Game MVP), Steve Ralston (1996 ROY, 1999 and 2000 Fair Play Award), Mike Duhaney (1997 ROY), Roy Lassiter (1996 Golden Boot), Mamadou Diallo (2000 Golden Boot, 2000 All-Star Game MVP), Thomas Rongen (1996 Coach of the Year)
Winning Seasons: 3 (1996, 1997, 2000)
Overall Franchise Record (including Playoffs): 85-107-6 (Six Seasons)
Franchise Folded For: Not being as pretty as Manchester United, ain’t nobody watch ’em
(Great seats still available!)
Team Colors: Light Blue and Navy Blue (Home), Navy Blue and White (Away), Green, White, Yellow, Light Blue, and Navy Blue (third kit)
Logo and Wordmark:
(For those (justifiably) wondering what in the hell the third image is supposed to be, scroll down to the Mutiny entry here)
(And because I can’t stop thinking about it, here’s a bonus side-by-side comparison of the Ultimate Warrior’s face paint and the Mutiny crest:)
(OK last one I promise:)
And as a final gift to you, dear reader, here is a picture of the nightmare fuel that was the Mutiny mascot, some sort of soccer-loving Batman villain:
Tampa Bat Mutiny Wikipedia Page
Rodney Page at the Tampa Bay Times (nothing Mutiny specific, you should just read him because he’s good and helpful)
The Forgotten Story of the Tampa Bay Mutiny at Brotherly Game
Tampa Bay Mutiny page at Fun While It Lasted (a site that is similar to this one with a slightly different approach and a TON of fun material)