Wright, Bowers make returns

Now with San Diego, 2 at center of last season's shakeup visit Blast tonight

Pro Soccer

November 21, 2003|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

A year ago, Paul Wright, who was the Blast's leading scorer at the time, did an unusual thing. He put his job on the line for Kevin Healey when Healey was removed as the team's coach. And when Healey was not restored to the job, Wright risked his career by refusing to play another game for Baltimore.

"I'm coming back to the scene of the crime," said Wright, who now plays for the San Diego Sockers, who face the Blast tonight at 1st Mariner Arena. "You make sure you write that, the scene of the crime. That's the way I feel about it."

It's the way Blast owner Ed Hale feels about it, too, but from a totally different perspective.

Wright said the players were at fault for the 2002-2003 team's poor start. Seven games into what would turn out to be a championship season, the team was 2-5. Wright faulted his teammates for not playing up to their ability. He felt Healey was unjustly fired and said so. After playing in one game for interim player-coach Sean Bowers, Wright told management he wanted to be traded.

"There was no way I was going to play another minute for that organization," Wright said this week. "They had two choices. They could trade me or put me on waivers. They chose to put me on waivers. Now, I'm back home in San Diego. It worked out well for everybody. They won the championship, and I'm home where I want to be."

It was controversial at the time. What team lets its leading scorer go for nothing? But for Hale, it was an easy choice.

"A player is not going to dictate when and where he is going to play," said Hale. "I thought we had enough horsepower. ... At the end of the day, he quit and we won the championship. So who was right?"

In the old days, soccer fans could anticipate a dust-up between the Sockers and the Blast. In those early days of the original MISL, it seemed the road to the championship almost always ran through San Diego in the West and Baltimore in the East.

The coaches fussed at each other. The players picked at one another. The fans did their part, too, booing with appropriate gusto.

"When we came back there last year, it was the night they were honoring their 1983-84 championship team," said Sockers coach Brian Quinn, who won eight championship rings as a Sockers player. "There were still several fans there that I remembered from the days when they personally used to boo me. They're still booing me, but I think they were glad to see me, too."

The rivalry has changed over the years. San Diego is just another team the Blast has to beat if it wants to be successful, but tonight's meeting might carry a new intensity.

Both sides will have points to make.

Wright and his teammate Bowers, who was a defenseman on the Blast's championship team last season and will receive his championship ring at the game, will want to win for San Diego. Midfielder Chile Farias, who was a Socker until he was traded here for Bowers last summer, will want to demonstrate that trading him might not have been the best thing for the Sockers' struggling offense.

After winning the championship, Bowers asked Healey and Hale to trade him to San Diego. It is his childhood home. His friends and family are there, and he and his wife had always wanted to return at some point in his career.

When Bowers, 35, asked for the trade, Hale said he wasn't exactly thrilled, but Bowers had told his owner of those plans from the beginning of their original contract talks.

"Sean distinguished himself as a player and a leader," Hale said. "Sean was always a team player. When he came and told me that he'd like to be traded back to his home, I told him we'd accommodate him if we could work out a deal that was beneficial to us, too. And we got Farias, and I'm glad we did. It worked out for the best for us."

After the trade, in which the Blast got an explosive and younger goal scorer, the primary question some Blast observers had was whether Bowers and Wright would get along in San Diego. Because Wright's trade demands came at the same time Bowers was made the interim coach, some felt that was the reason for his decision not to play.

But Wright and Bowers deny that.

"Sean and I grew up together," said Wright, who has combined with Bowers for two goals in the past three games. "He had nothing to do with it. It was all about Kevin losing the coaching job, not about Sean taking over. But Sean knows me well enough to know that once I make up my mind about something, I'm not going to change it."

Bowers noticed Wright's absence at the first team practice after the coaching change and went to Wright's home to find out what the problem was.

"I'm an up-front person," Bowers said, "and Pauly and I go back to the under-19s. We go back longer than almost anyone in the sport. He made his feelings known to me. He played in Philly, which was our next game, and then told Kevin he wanted to be traded. When you have a player who doesn't want to be there, you might as well let him go because you're going to be better off.

"But Paul and me, we're very solid. He was very loyal to Kevin and upset with Ed and he burned his bridges. He simply wanted to go home."

Bowers handled it differently. Healey had brought him to Baltimore, too, and during a meeting with Healey and Hale, Bowers, who was by then the interim coach, tried to talk Hale into restoring Healey to the job.

When that didn't happen, Bowers simply did the job Hale asked of him.

But now, Wright and Bowers are together again on their hometown team and though Bowers isn't buying into Wright's feelings about returning to the scene of a crime, he is Wright's teammate.

"We're returning together, and I'm on his side now," Bowers said. "But I love Baltimore. It's a great organization with great fans. They can boo me when I'm on the field and then, I hope, shake my hand after the game."

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