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THE TANK : Eduardo Hurtado, the Galaxy's Not-So-Secret Weapon, Has Emerged as Major League Soccer's Best Player

June 29, 1996|GEORGE DOHRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A hug, a blown kiss and then a piggy-back ride: Eduardo Hurtado is on the job.

His 6-foot-3 frame is covered with another night's work and another opposing defense has been thoroughly beaten.

"El Tanque" has led the Galaxy to another victory, and now has someone in his turrets.

"We just wait and see," said Hurtado's wife, Celina, seated in the front row of the Rose Bowl, two young children beside her. "Every time he scores we know he is going to do something. He either blows me a kiss or gives hugs or something."

On this day, Hurtado has blown a kiss, given a hug, and with his third goal still uncelebrated, he walks slowly to the stands, climbs a few steps, takes his 3-year-old son, Steward, in his arms, and carries him onto the field as the crowd erupts. "El Tanque" carrying "El Tanquito." Big and little tank blow kisses back toward mom.

Eduardo Hurtado, Major League Soccer's 200-pound leading goal-scorer . . . blowing kisses.

Yes, a tank that shoots kisses.

*

How do you stop The Tank?

That was the question posed to Hurtado at a recent practice.

He stood silently for a long time, smiled, shrugged. It was answer enough.

Someone asked another stumper. What MLS defender has been most effective against him?

Hurtado stood silently even longer. He shrugged again. An answer was offered: "How about John Doyle . . . from San Jose?"

Hurtado paused again, and said finally: "Doyle, si, Doyle." The 27-year-old smiled big like a schoolboy who had been whispered the answer.

Doyle merely limited Hurtado to one goal in two games. And that was before Hurtado started rolling.

In the Galaxy's first three games, Hurtado managed only one assist. In the last three, he has seven goals and an assist, including three goals Wednesday in a 3-1 victory over the Colorado Rapids, whom the Galaxy plays again Sunday at Denver.

In the early part of the season, some wondered if "El Tanque" was a dud. But after Wednesday's game, Hurtado trails only Kansas City forward Preki in total points, 27-26, but has 11 goals to Preki's 10. Also, Preki has played in 16 games while Hurtado has played in 11, and Preki has 32 shots on goal to Hurtado's 25.

"He is the best player in this league," Galaxy Coach Lothar Osiander said.

He wasn't even close early in the season. The team had heard so much about Hurtado, who began his professional career in 1988 with Ecuador's Centro Juvenil Deportivo, at 19. He was a member of Ecuador's national team. He scored four goals in a Korea Cup game in 1995.

"I remember the first time I met him at training camp in San Diego," Galaxy midfielder Jorge Salcedo said. "I walked up to him and said, 'Hey, you know this isn't a basketball camp. You're going to have to leave.'

"He was huge, and you could see that he knew how to use his body. You knew he was going to be tough to handle."

But there were several things that Hurtado had to handle before he lived up to expectations.

"Everywhere I have gone I have started slow," Hurtado said through an interpreter. "In Switzerland [with Saint Gallen], Mexico [with Correcaminos], and in Chile [with Colo Colo]. And in each it was just a natural process of settling. I need to be in a place where my family feels good and where I feel good. Only then can I play my best."

His comfort begins with Galaxy assistant Octavio Zambrano, also from Ecuador, who gave up playing in his country to attend Chapman College. Zambrano knows soccer in Ecuador, he knows Esmeraldes, the town where Hurtado grew up, and he knows what it's like to come to this country, your bag stuffed with worries.

"When Eduardo heard that there was a fellow Ecuadorean national on the team, it made it much easier for him to come here," said Celina, who has been married to Eduardo for four years. "Octavio has done everything for us. He has helped us become comfortable here."

He was also the one in Hurtado's ear when he wasn't playing well.

"I remember after one game I could see that he was down and I pulled him aside," Zambrano said. "I told him: 'Eduardo, you are the best forward in the league. You just have to let it happen.' "

Hurtado's acclimation to the United States also included learning a new style of play. In South America, Hurtado's size and footwork in close confines fit the style. In the United States, he was asked to be a bit of a speedster, to chase the long ball.

"He came to a league where the soccer is played at a faster pace," Zambrano said. "Speed was an aspect of his game he hadn't been able to exploit. He needed time to adjust."

Hurtado is not Cobi Jones; he is not going to run anyone down. But he is deceptively quick, and when he gets moving, few want to stand in the way.

"I think he takes it a little easy on us in practice," said Salcedo, who is assigned to mark Hurtado in workouts. "If he went all out, he would humiliate us like he has the rest of the league."

Hurtado is, by his coach's estimate, still growing as a player.

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