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In Year 2, focus is on the fans

A white chalkboard in the Tampa Bay Mutiny's downtown office maps out the strategy for the 1997 season. There are no X's and O's or depth charts on the board. These plans are much more important than that.

After the Mutiny posted a Major League Soccer-best 20-12 record in the league's inaugural season, team officials were left scratching their heads over attendance figures. Even though the team included flamboyant players such as Carlos Valderrama and Roy Lassiter, the Mutiny averaged only 11,679 fans, ninth in the 10-team league.

Major League Soccer, which owns the Mutiny, decided a front-office change was necessary. President and general manager Farrukh Quraishi was reassigned to a league player personnel job. Nick Sakiewicz, formerly the league's vice president of corporate sales, took over Oct. 23.

Since then, Sakiewicz (pronounced Sa-KEV-itch) has had one thing on his mind _ filling seats.

After months of planning, which included hiring an outside consulting firm, the Mutiny came up with an idea _ throw a party.

Starting Saturday night, when the Mutiny hosts the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, a huge interactive playground called Soccer Celebration will be set up before every game at Houlihan's Stadium. It will include an obstacle course, soccer goals and live bands, and players will visit to sign autographs.

There will be changes inside the stadium, too.

The first 5,000 fans at each game will receive prizes, including soccer balls, T-shirts and posters. The Jumbotronused at Bucs games will show replays.

Special sections will be set up for rowdy fans. There will be Mutiny dancers and a new fight song. The team will even wear new uniforms.

And if that's not enough, the Mutiny will play some soccer, too.

"This year it's more of an event, and there's also some soccer being played," Sakiewicz said. "The way I'm dubbing it, it's a big party with 90 minutes of soccer. The climax of the party is the soccer."

Last season there was plenty of good soccer, but very little of anything else.

Since then the Mutiny has attempted to become more visible in the community. The team has played exhibition games in Lakeland, Sarasota, Brandon and Clearwater. Players have made appearances at hospitals, soccer clubs and civic groups. Anything to get noticed.

"We had an attractive style of soccer last year. I don't know why people didn't come out," goalkeeper Mark Dougherty said. "We're going to have to do double time this year. We're going to have to do it on the field and off the field. Whatever it takes."

Talk that the team might leave after this season if attendance doesn't improve were alleviated when MLS announced that Chicago and Miami will receive expansion teams, perhaps as early as next season. Miami had been thought to be a prime relocation spot for Tampa Bay.

"I've had daily contact with Nick, and I'm pleased with the way things are going," MLS Commissioner Doug Logan said. "I'm pleased with the programs they have in place. We've also met with the Glazers (owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and we've done a lot of brainstorming about how to heighten ticket sales. I think it's all coming along well down there.

"But the bottom line is we need to establish a ticket base more in tune with what warrants a team like that."

Sakiewicz set a goal of selling 3,000 season tickets. Just a few days before the opening game the Mutiny has sold about 1,500.

Sakiewicz would like to average 15,000 fans per game. With the new MLS schedule scheduling most games played for weekends, that goal might be reachable.

"If we don't get that on the opening night, it won't be the end of the world," Sakiewicz said. "We still have plenty of games to gain momentum."

On the field, the Mutiny has changed very little.

Lassiter, the league's leading goal-scorer, with 27, was signed to a multi-year contract in December.

"The effort Tampa Bay was showing toward me meant a lot," Lassiter said. "I always knew this was a special place for me and my family. Now it's time to give back to the community and make soccer work here."

Only one starter from last year is gone. Defender Steve Pittman was traded to Kansas City for forward Alan Prampin. Valderrama, the MLS Player of the Year in 1996, midfielder Steve Ralston, the league's Rookie of the Year, and Cle Kooiman, one of the top three defenders last season, all return.

One new face is coach John Kowalski. Kowalski takes over for Thomas Rongen, who left to coach the New England Revolution. Kowalski, a native of Poland, has (more than 20 years of coaching experience on the collegiate and professional levels.

He doesn't plan on changing much, but he is not content to let things remain the same.

"If it's not broken, don't fix it. but at the same time, everyone else is improving so you have to improve," Kowalski said. "We can't be stagnant. Stagnation leads to mediocrity."

Each team is allowed a second foreign player this year, and the Mutiny capitalized by signing two, one of whom replaces Diego Viera, who was released.

Forward Jacek Ziober, a member of the Polish national team, and midfielder Joao Batista Da Silva, who has played for eight Brazilian club teams, are expected to provide immediate impact.

The Mutiny also is counting on the contribution of defender Mike Duhaney. Duhaney missed last season with a knee injury, but is expected to provide speed in the defensive half in replacing Pittman.

The off-field changes were made to bolster attendance. On-field changes were made to win an MLS Cup.

The Mutiny thought it should have won the Cup last year, but losing five of six to D.C. United, including the final two in the playoffs, sealed its fate.

Those memories act as motivation.

"I'm still mad as hell about it," Kooiman said. "Every day I'm always thinking about it. We want to get ourselves back in that position again this year.

"Anything less than that would be disappointing."

Season tickets

Youth/senior

Premier $396

Center circle $288

Sideline $252 $144

Goal view $216 $144

The 1000 Club $162

The Fan Club $162

Single game

Premier $25

Center circle $18

Sideline adult $16

Sideline youth+/

seniors 60 & older $8

Goal view adult $13

Goal view youth+/

seniors 60 & older $8

General admission

day-of-game only $10

+Youth tickets are for children 14 and under

Soccer celebration

What: A fan interaction area.

Where: In the north parking lot of Houlihan's Stadium, bordering Himes Avenue.

When: Available to ticket holders 2{ hours before each weekend home game.

Includes: Food court, three-on-three soccer, long-distance kick, goalkeeper challenge, obstacle course, face painting.

Cost: Free.

+ Single-game tickets can be purchased with a credit card through Ticketmaster by calling (813) 287-8844 or any Ticketmaster outlet with cash only.

+ Single-game tickets also can be purchased from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday by cash, personal check or credit card at the Mutiny ticket office and pro shop, in the atrium mall at Austin Center West, 1408 N Westshore Blvd., Suite 110, Tampa. Fans can also mail single-game ticket requests with the price of the ticket and a $2 postage/handling fee to the Mutiny office.

For further information, call (813) 289-6811.

Source: Tampa Bay Mutiny

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