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Campos Unrest a Revolting Affair for MLS

October 07, 1998|GRAHAME L. JONES

Consider, for a moment, this hypothetical scenario:

The Kings have qualified for the NHL playoffs, goaltender Jamie Storr has compiled a 16-8 record, has led the league in shutouts with eight and has finished the regular season with a league-best 1.17 goals- against average.

His backup, Stephane Fiset, also has done well, winning his last four starts, giving up only 1.88 goals a game while going 4-3 for the season.

And then, only four days before their first playoff game, the Kings allow Fiset to up and leave. Just like that. To bail out and head home to Canada to join another team. Simply because he's angry at riding the bench.

It would never happen, would it?

The NHL would never allow it. Owner Philip Anschutz would laugh at the idea. Coach Larry Robinson would straighten Fiset out in no time.

But Major League Soccer is not the NHL. It lives by its own rules, peculiar as they might seem at times.

And lately they have seemed bizarre.

We are talking, of course, about the Chicago Fire's strange decision to allow Jorge Campos to return to Mexico on the eve of the MLS playoffs, leaving Zach Thornton as the No. 1 goalkeeper and the team scrambling for a backup.

League and club officials have been struggling to come up with an adequate explanation for this strange move. But no matter what positive spin they try to put on it, the whole episode smacks of folly.

And the blame can be shared by many.

The first is Anschutz, who not only owns the Kings, but also the Fire and its first-round playoff opponent, the Colorado Rapids. Presumably, Anschutz would not have allowed Fiset to leave the Kings under such circumstances, so why permit Campos to flee the Fire?

Then there is Bob Bradley, Chicago's coach. It was his decision to name Thornton his starting keeper for the playoffs that forced Campos out. The two goalkeepers had been alternating as starters late in the season and the practice seemed to be working out well.

Storr's imaginary statistics listed above are Thornton's real stats this season. Fiset's numbers belong to Campos in real life.

But the arrival of the playoffs apparently prompted Bradley to decide that Campos was not good enough to start. He told him Thornton would be his playoff keeper.

Ludicrous.

Thornton, a 6-foot-3, 210-pound player whose father was a tight end for the University of Kentucky, has enjoyed a tremendous season, emerging from obscurity and going to the forefront of the league in only seven months. Last season, the 24-year-old from Baltimore was a little-known backup to Tony Meola for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.

Unlike Campos, however, he is not a national team player. Unlike Campos, he has not played in two World Cup tournaments. Unlike Campos, he is not known throughout the world.

Bradley's decision to bench Campos for the playoffs was a direct slap at the Mexican star and Campos reacted in predictable fashion. In effect, he said, "Enough of this MLS nonsense" and rejoined his Mexican club, UNAM, which had requested his early return.

That might seem petulant, and indeed Campos is not blame-free in this farce. He refused to be the No. 2 and said adios.

The league let him get away with it, though, and then argued that it was not a bad precedent to set.

Here's MLS Commissioner Doug Logan's somewhat convoluted explanation:

"We have a unique set of circumstances that got cluttered as a consequence of Jorge not arriving on the scene [in Chicago], or arriving on the scene only one game prior to [leaving for] the World Cup. You have a team that has been playing extraordinarily well and went on a long winning streak in his absence.

"In deference to Bob Bradley, it was his choice to make and he could have chosen to indicate that Jorge was his starting goalkeeper. I think that he made a valid coaching decision at that time [to rotate keepers once Campos returned from France '98 rather than name either of them No. 1].

"I think that in the unique kind of relationship that we have with the Mexican League, where we might get an accommodation like that in the future, it was just one of those things that happens."

Sunil Gulati, the league's deputy commissioner, added his own twist to the tale.

"I want to say that even more strongly," he said. "We've had any number of players from Europe offered to us for the summer months, at some cases on free loans and at virtually no salary. We've rejected those outright where it meant players leaving before our playoffs.

"In this situation, where [Campos] is not playing or not seen to be playing, it's a little bit different from a normal situation. If he was the starting goalkeeper or was going to be the starting goalkeeper, it would be a nonissue. Jorge's commitment was to be here and he would certainly have stayed."

Instead, while the Fire takes on the Rapids in the MLS playoffs, with the prospect of playing the Galaxy in the next round, Campos is back in Mexico City, playing as a forward for the Pumas.

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