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Apr 18, 2007

MLS making headlines, from Armas to Zidane

Ringing the firehouse bell for the last time
With the same quiet, classy demeanor that's always defined him and set him a part as a pro's pro, Chris Armas has told the Chicago Fire he is retiring at the end of the 2007 season. Armas, fourth all-time in games played with 263, is one of 10 MLS originals still playing. The seven-time All-Star was named MLS' Best XI five times. Armas might have never been better than in the 1998 season, when, after being acquired from the Galaxy, he led the expansion Fire to their only MLS Cup. Armas' international career was derailed by two serious knee injuries. He suffered his first ACL tear in the U.S.' last tune-up match on the eve of the 2002 World Cup. He returned to fine form in 2003, winning the MLS comeback player of the year award, leading the Fire to the MLS Cup Final. Armas will go down as not only one of the great midfield leaders in league history, but also as one of the best and classiest men to ever have pulled on an MLS jersey.

More Zidane rumors
Maybe at the end of the day, it will all turn out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. But the persistent rumors surrounding Zinedine Zidane's move to MLS will not go away. This week a story surfaced that the Galaxy has inked a deal for Zidane. But the source of the story was -- dare I say -- taken out of context. Whoops! As one Galaxy official told me, "We're having fun with it. There's nothing we can really do about it but sit back and laugh about it."

'Superclásico' Norte
The Red Bulls and Bruce Arena got their man in Juan Pablo Angel -- and they were willing to pay for what they wanted. Angel's contract stipulates he's to earn around $79,000 a week for this season, plus an additional year. The move for former Aston Villa forward Angel, along with the one made by the Columbus Crew for Guillermo Barros Schelotto, could mean an Argentine 'Superclásico' reunion when the Crew and NYRB play on May 19. Schelotto is one of the most revered players in the history of the Boca Juniors, the undisputed Superclásico rival of Angel's former club River Plate.

Strong early returns
I was roving around the Indianapolis convention center between picks during the early portion of this year's MLS Superdraft when one MLS official pulled me aside and said, "Here comes this year's rookie of the year." The player he was referring to was North Carolina product Michael Harrington, chosen by the K.C. Wizards with the third overall selection in this year's draft. Harrington scored three minutes into his MLS debut on a nifty near-post finish past D.C. keeper Troy Perkins', becoming the fastest ever to score in his debut. The Wizards have never had a rookie of the year and in fact have only had two other players nominated for the award in the club's history: Scott Sealy, in 2005, and Nick Garcia, in 2000.

Guess who's back?
Only the return of the prodigal son was better than Clint Mathis' return to New York in Week 2 of MLS action. His goal and assist signified Mathis is indeed back to prove the long line of doubters wrong.

"I'm happy now, that's what was missing. I wasn't happy anymore playing and that was a big ordeal," Mathis said while taking a break from moving into his new New York-area home. "I didn't have as much confidence, that's why I wanted to make this change back here and get back with Bruce. It's definitely made me happier."

The news of the Mathis trade made headlines, but few know the back story. "I'm the one who asked for the trade," Mathis said. "I asked Fernando to trade me, and he asked me which team I wanted to go to, and I told him New York, and it ended up working out. They were looking for an attacking guy and we were able to make it happen."

Mathis adds, "Bruce and I have always had a great understanding with each other, never had a problem with each other or anything like that. Must people would think that we have had problems, but Bruce and me have always got on well, so it's been an easy transition for me.

"I have known or played with Bruce and the staff for a long time, and so far it's been great. All of those guys have always been on my side, for sure. It has so happened to work out perfect that Bruce and his staff are here, where I had so much success during my career. If Bruce was coaching somewhere else, there's a very good chance I would have went there."

Mathis concedes perception is reality and he hears the criticisms loud and clear. "It's crappy being labeled, this and that, but it comes with the territory. I was on a high pedestal for a while when I was here before in New York. I was getting celebrity status both inside and outside the soccer world. Anytime you are up there, people are always going to bring or shoot you down.

"Am I worried about what people are really saying about me? No! Yeah, it's always nice to hear all the good things, but it's not going to bother me because I know in my heart where I can be, and get back to where I was, and potentially be one of the best soccer players in this country again. God gave me that talent and I have been able to use it. So for people to say I am overrated or for people to say I can't do it anymore or this and that, I don't worry about it.

"I want to take that step where people are taking me seriously that I am working hard to get back to where I was as a player, and I don't think people have ever heard that coming directly from me before."

The show must go on
The bad weather that has caused many problems and headaches for Major League Baseball this spring while sparking wide debate about scheduling hasn't had the same effect on MLS. The FC Dallas-New York Red Bulls match was played in a heavy torrent, to say the least, with the harshest portion of the Northeaster storm battering the New York area from kickoff thru the end of the match.

Said U.S. soccer official Esse Bahrmast about the protocol followed when faced with inclement weather, "Common sense and safety are the keys to determining whether or not a match is deemed unplayable." To let you know just how difficult the conditions were, New York Red Bulls staring Dutch goalkeeper Ronald Waterreus had to leave the game at halftime, replaced by Jon Conway, after suffering from symptoms related to hypothermia.

Perfect timing?
The Chicago Fire is rooting very hard for a U.S.-Mexico final at this summer's Gold Cup. Why? Well, it would mean their new signing, Guatemahoc Blanco, would already be in town as a Mexican international player, even though he isn't scheduled to join his new club till early July. If both of CONCACAF's giants advance to the final to be played at Soldier Field, it could mean Blanco would play in front of 66,000 fans one week and make his Fire bow at Toyota Park the very next, streamlining the hype in Chicago.

And baby makes four in the midfield
D.C. United are off till April 28, and after their 0-2 start this season, the off week comes at a great time for rookie head coach Tom Soehn to work out the early-season kinks. It also allowed Soehn to be home for the birth of his fourth child. On Tuesday, Soehn and his wife, Jean, became the proud parents of the couple's third daughter, 9-pound, 3-ounce Addison Jean. Mom and baby are home and doing well.

Allen Hopkins covers Major League Soccer and U.S. Soccer for ESPN and ESPN.com. Look for Allen patrolling the sidelines during MLS Primetime Thursday on ESPN2. He can be reached at studiosports@yahoo.com.