Net Loss

After 13 years of survival and success, Dallas Sidekicks coach Gordon Jago leaves behind the team he kept alive

"Mr. Carter"--Jago never refers to him as Don--"once said to me, 'I've been through difficult times with the Mavericks, so I know what it's all about. All I ask is that if we lose, the players crawl up the corridor with blood on their knees, and that'd be fine by me. But if we lose and they run up the corridor and go out dancin', get rid of 'em.'"

The only high point of the first couple of years came in the form of a young Brazilian named Antonio Carlos Pecorari--or Tatu, which is Brazilian for armadillo, a name bestowed upon the 5-foot-6 forward by his father, a retired railroad worker. Of the Sidekicks' 194 goals scored during the first season, Tatu accounted for 59--and he celebrated each one by ripping off his jersey and sending it into the seats. Such antics would, over time, make him a beloved figure in Dallas sports--so much so that by the late '80s, you could walk into any Baskin-Robbins and order Tatu Toffee.

Jago was responsible for bringing Tatu to the States. He spotted the 19-year-old player during a scouting trip to Brazil, where Tatu was a burgeoning star on Sao Paolo's first-division team. Though he spoke no English and was on the verge of becoming a national hero, Tatu agreed to come to the States and join Jago's Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Like Jago, he was enamored of the idea of legitimizing soccer to an American audience that actually found golf more interesting than the razzle-dazzle of soccer. And he became, quite literally, the poster boy for soccer in the United States--or, as Sports Illustrated referred to him in 1987, "The Shirtless Wonder." He was so important to the sport that opponents didn't even mind his post-goal shirt-throwing. They realized it brought people to the games and helped keep their struggling sport alive.

Tatu remains the lone Sidekick to have been with Jago through the worst and best of times. (Current Sidekicks midfielder Kevin Smith was on the inaugural team, but he played in Monterrey during the 1993 and '94 seasons before being reacquired in a trade in 1995.) Their relationship was once one of student and teacher; now, they are close friends. Tatu came to the United States as a young man. Now he has a wife and two children, with a third on the way.

"To be honest with you, my relationship with Gordon is like a marriage," Tatu says after practice. Evan Davi sits by his side, playing with a Batman doll. "You have good times and bad times, and that's how it goes. Up and down. Definitely there's a respect there, a tremendous respect, but as the years go along, you don't treat him as a coach. It's more as a friend, and that you cannot avoid, because the relationship for the many years you stay's just amazing.

"It's almost like at home. When your wife is happy with you, she calls you darling--Tony or something like that--but when she's mad, it's Tatu. So that's how it goes, my relationship with the coach. When the relationship is good, it's Gordon; when the relationship is kinda sarcastic, it's Mr. Jago; and when it's real bad, when you have a little argument, it's Coach. So that's how it goes."

He smiles, something he doesn't often do as he begins pondering a professional life without his longtime coach and friend on the sidelines. "It's a family relationship there. But it has its ups and downs, its good days and bad days."

Tatu shrugs and says he will wait and see whether he likes the new coach and whether he feels good enough to play one more year. This season, he's been sidelined with all manner of hamstring problems and muscle pulls, and most recently, he was hospitalized for four days because of a viral infection.

It hurts Tatu to think that Jago and maybe even he will leave on a losing note: "The 13-15 [record] is still up in my throat," he says, choking on the words. "We're better than that." But he is resigned to the fact that he, too, is near the end of his career.

"I understand Gordon's situation, because I'm probably in the same boat as Gordon," Tatu says, his face expressionless and still that of a young man. "You love the game, you've been involved for so long, you've been with the franchise since the beginning, so it's your baby. You really wanna go on and see the thing grow stronger, and it's very difficult to let it go. It's like your kid is going to college. It's difficult to let it go, but you know it has to happen sometime."

Tatu speaks of returning not only because he doesn't want to end on a bad season, but because he needs to find out if he still has what it takes to win--the drive, the desire, the absolute need to be better than anyone else. And perhaps there is a part of him that wants to see if he can without Gordon Jago by his side, where he's been for almost two decades.

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