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"El Pibe' returning to his youth

With plenty of scorers to pass to, Mutiny's Carlos Valderrama is playing like a kid again.

His nickname is "El Pibe," and lately Carlos Valderrama has felt like "The Kid." Perhaps even like a kid in a candy store.

Flanked by capable forwards Raul Diaz Arce and Mamadou Diallo, as well as midfielders Manny Lagos and Steve Ralston, Valderrama is having a blast this season as the Mutiny's midfield playmaker.

He's off to his best start since joining MLS and the Mutiny in 1996. Through 10 games, Valderrama has a league-high 10 assists, three ahead of teammate Ralston. At this pace, Valderrama can shatter his season-high 19 assists, set in 1997.

"He's the best in the game," midfielder Dominic Kinnear said. "He sees things that other players don't."

Valderrama long has been considered one of the best at distributing the ball. He played in three World Cups for Colombia before retiring from international competition in 1998.

At 38, he is proving his career is far from over. Bolstered by confidence in his forwards, Valderrama has been in on nearly half (10 of 21) of the Mutiny's goals.

Pass it, and they will score.

"It makes me feel very good because I feel like we can win pretty much any game," Valderrama said through interpreter Orlando Congut, the team's Hispanic marketing director. "It's nice to know that you can get a through ball and it's going to be finished. It doesn't always happen, but it's nice to know that there's always a chance."

Not since the inaugural 1996 season, when forward Roy Lassiter had a league-high 27 goals, has Valderrama had this much firepower with which to play. Diaz Arce is the league's career goal-scoring leader and has four in six games this season.

Things got even better in April when Diallo joined the team. He has added seven goals in eight games, third best in the league. Throw in Lagos (four goals) and Ralston (two goals, seven assists) and Valderrama has plenty of options.

"There's not anybody better in the league with time and space than Carlos," Lagos said. "The players feed off of him. And I think a lot of that starts with the defense. We've played very well defensively, and this is the best I've seen Carlos play defense."

Under the current 4-5-1 scheme, Valderrama plays with either Diaz Arce or Diallo up front. Having a different forward for nearly every game forces Valderrama to adjust in the midfield.

"They're very different players," Valderrama said. "Raul is the kind of guy that controls the ball and distributes. He plays very well with the head. He's a pure goal scorer. When he gets a chance, he very seldom misses. I'm very happy that he's here.

"Mamadou has adjusted well, but he's a different player. He's very fast. He's taken advantage of the opportunities he's had. It's very important when you have those players that you take advantage of every opportunity that is given to you. It's very good for this team to have those two players."

Like a true offensive-minded player, Valderrama would like to see both forwards on the field at the same time.

"Yes, I think they can play together," he said. "But that is the coach's decision. We had only one forward and they wanted to find another to play with the other one. Then we did, but only one forward is playing. Sometimes in soccer that happens. They're both very good players and we have to take full advantage of them right now."

Whoever is on the field with Valderrama better be ready. In a game against Dallas, Valderrama lofted a no-look long ball down the left side to Diallo, who scored.

Against Columbus last week, Kinnear scored the third goal on a Valderrama pass that went between a defender's legs.

On the field, Valderrama is the coach, and his teammates better listen.

"He demands a lot of you, but I love it," Lagos said. "We were up 3-0 against Columbus and I was at the top of the 18(-yard box) and he played the ball to me and wanted to go forward. I played it wide to Tritt (Steve Trittschuh) and he yelled at me. He gives you that look. But he wanted to keep going forward even though we were up 3-0, and I love that."

Valderrama has played in every game this season. He has 59 assists in 80 games with the Mutiny, 14 in 22 games with Miami in 1998 and part of '99.

He is a four-time All-Star and one of the most recognizable players in the league. Retirement appears to be in the distant future.

"That will depend on me," Valderrama said. "If I feel physically well, which is how I feel right now, then sure, I can continue to play."

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