The Throw-In: Why MLS needs Ray Hudson back

It’s been a rare and strange few days as one of the world’s biggest mouths has gone silent. José Mourinho simply ran out of things to say.

His Real Madrid finally broke their trophy jinx, but his failure to get past archrivals Barcelona in the Champions League – as well as behavior that saw him banished to the stands – casts a strange silence.

Love him or hate him (and really, there is no in between) you cannot debate that the man is pure theater, must-see TV on a grand scale and a master manipulator of the spoken word. Every time Mourinho opens his mouth, it’s a quote to be remembered, even if it’s ego-driven rhetoric or just simply a hilarious one-liner that couldn’t be scripted by anyone else. The Special One is oral gamesmanship at its finest, and the footballing world is better for his presence.

That got me thinking a little more locally. Where is MLS’ mini-Mourinho? Where is a coach who can expertly divert attention away from his players, who can make himself a bulls-eye for the media? One who is as much a star off the field as his squad is on it?

We don’t have one. Bruce Arena comes closest in size and scope – and his personality can certainly fill a room, as can his experience in the trenches on the international stage. But he doesn’t have that playful edge, that tiny hint of self-deprecation.

MLS’ Scandinavian gaffers have sarcasm down pat. New York’s Hans Backe and Vancouver’s Teitur Thordarson are surprisingly adept at understated humor, and can disarm you with a cleverly timed bit of thinking-man’s comedy. But they lack the presence.

Our league’s Britons all have the dry wit mastered. Colorado’s Gary Smith, Portland’s John Spencer, New England’s Steve Nicol and San Jose’s Frank Yallop could be your drinking buddies. But they’re wing men, really, and don’t have the grand ambition.

In my mind, there is only one solution to MLS’ Mourinho void. And he has been sitting behind a microphone for 12 years: Ray Hudson.

Yes, that Ray Hudson. That inimitable voice of GolTV who has made flowery prose in a thick Geordie accent into high art. The king of on-air one-liners that has spawned blogs and Twitter accounts of appreciation. The man who once compared Ronaldinho to Betamax because, “They don’t make them like him anymore.”

He doesn't have Mourinho's ego nor his megalomaniacal tendencies – he's never nicknamed himself or pretended he's bigger than his players. But if he's in the room, his mouth often takes center stage on its own.

“He’s so enthusiastic and so passionate about the game,” Real Salt Lake ‘keeper Nick Rimando tells MLSsoccer.com. “Anyone who listens to him can tell that within five minutes of watching. I think he’s the best announcer we’ve ever had in the US.”

Rimando also knows that Hudson is one of the most unique personalities ever to coach in MLS. The veteran ‘keeper played for the Englishman for four seasons in Miami and D.C. United. In fact, Rimando was the star netminder for Hudson’s 2001 Fusion team, which was one of the strongest sides in league history.

Hudson was the caretaker of one of the most ego-driven and star-heavy squads the league has ever fielded and somehow got them to play together. He installed an attack-heavy, up-tempo 3-5-2 style that showed off such gems as Diego Serna, Alex Pineda Chacón, Preki and Ian Bishop, and even launched the careers of current stars like Rimando, Kyle Beckerman and Pablo Mastroeni.

That team amassed 57 goals scored over a 26-game season, won the Supporters’ Shield and played some of the best attacking soccer in league history before getting upended by eventual champions San Jose in the semifinals.

“They were wonderful footballers first and foremost,” Hudson recalls to MLSsoccer.com by phone from his GolTV desk in Miami. “Often those are the players who have ego and personality. I was the same as a player myself. It was like looking into a mirror when I saw them – I was exactly the same.”

He became known as the ultimate players’ coach, a guy who let his charges be themselves and who brought a certain laissez-faire attitude – and ample encouragement to unwind with a beer or two – to the league.

But it was off the field where Hudson became just as big of a star, both in Miami and then in his two seasons with DC. His press conferences were events that displayed his outsized personality and made him a sensation.

He once said there was “Anna Nicole Smith-type talent” on his team, while not so subtly cupping his pecs. He once praised Dema Kovalenko as a player who would “stab his mother in the eye for another bowl of porridge.” He lauded a new signing because the player was “the hairy-chested Bulgarian” he’d always wanted.

In fact, Miami and Washington journalists remember Hudson’s postgame addresses for their Lawrence of Arabia-like length, where the Englishman would ramble off passionate rants about player performances, how he felt the league should be run, what kinds of atmospheres he appreciated in MLS. Really anytime he had an opinion, and that was always, the media was going to hear about it.

When United fired him after their disappointing 2003 season and replaced him with Peter Nowak, the league lost something special. But that loss was still the fans’ gain, as Hudson has achieved perhaps even more notoriety while plowing his passion into calling European games on GolTV.

MLS needs Hudson back – or at the very least, someone like him. For a league that prides itself on building personalities, someone with Hudson’s way with words, a guy who wears his passion on his sleeve and will spare no media opportunity to air his thoughts – well, that’s something sorely lacking right now.

The league’s growth has structured it in a way that coaches are well-rehearsed and constantly aware of how they’re being perceived. Big-money TV contracts and unprecedented coverage is a double-edged sword in MLS. The Mourinhos are the outliers now, which makes the Special One that much more special. Still, there must be some way to tempt Hudson back out from behind the mic.

“I couldn’t be that way,” Hudson laments when speaking about how the gig has changed in such a short time. “I am what I am. I could never change. That part of me would always come out, good and bad. With a lot of guys now, you say one little word, it’s tweeted like a girder bomb. Things get taken out of context. Talk about a high-wire act.”

Though perhaps the wackiest coach in MLS history admits he misses a lot about roaming the sidelines, he thinks the game may have passed him by.

But does MLS miss Ray? You bet it does. Would Hudson be a breath of fresh air back into the league? It would, says Hudson’s on-air partner for a decade, Phil Schoen.

“It would be like blending a bit of the quick tongue of Dick Vitale, John Madden and Don Cherry with the coaching philosophy of a Wenger or Guardiola,” Schoen says. I can't think of anyone else like him.”

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.