By Albert Samaha
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There's nothing like a little Rage [Against the Machine] before a game if you want to go out and do some damage," said defender Mike Petke as he tucked an Evil EmpireCD into his bag after the MetroStars Sunday match against Columbus. It did the trick for Petke: he came, he saw, he raged. And his well-placed header in the 80th minute gave the Metros their first ever home-opening win.
Starting off with a 2-0 record opposed to 0-3, as they have for the past three years is a big change for the Metros. So are all the new faces (Miles Joseph and Tab Ramos are the only current Metros who were with the team at its genesis in 1996), and having a roster handy is probably a good idea for the players on the field as well as the fans in the stands. But there's hope that this year's upheaval will result in a change of another kind a successful season.
Leading the way in '99 is the man who uses the most words in the widest variety of languages to say as little as possible to the press, Bora Milutinovic. Known as a perfectionist and disciplinarian, Bora is the fifth MetroStars coach in four seasons, but the only one who has been able to spend the entire off-season with his team. The result so far is team cohesion: less panic, more pace, organization rather than hesitation. But it's early, and like a kid with a brand new chemistry set, the MetroStars are Bora's big experiment. Anxious onlookers are waiting to see if he will achieve the right mix, or if the season will blow up in his face.
Who's In:When asked whether trading Alexi Lalas and Tony Meola to Kansas City was good or bad, the ever-elusive Bora said, "Ask me in October." Considering Meola's knee injury and Lalas's comments about the Wizards being the "best collection of guys I've been with in MLS," it would appear the Metros got the better end of what was the biggest trade in their short history.
Meola leaves a big net to fill, but 6-3 keeper Mike Ammann has appeared at home in his new goal, calmly communicating with the defense minus any over-the-top Meola episodes. Formerly of Charlton Athletic with the English First Division, Ammann was 7-2 in shootouts his first full year with the Wizards, and it showed against Miami in the Metros' season opener a 3-2 shootout win. Wizard transplant number two, Mark Chung, was named to the 1997 Best Eleven and has also made 24 appearances with the U.S. Team. A strong left-footed player, Chung assisted on Hurtado's second goal in Miami and played well up front against Columbus but is more comfy at midfield.
Who's Out:Yes, there was lots of talk when Lalas and Meola were sent packing. But this season's MetroStars publicity tagline "We're goal-oriented" seems to contradict the teams decision not to hold on to forward Giovanni Savarese. Gio had his critics, but not many of them could argue with his stats. He scored more goals than anyone in Metros history 41 in 90 games but the Venezuelan was dealt away to make room for another foreigner, reportedly one who would better fit Bora's style.
Who's Left:Tab Ramos, playmaker and Metro mainstay, now wears the captain's armband. Although a strained knee tendon kept him out of the home opener, all eyes were on the 32-year-old Ramos in Miami, where he showed his trademark midfield leadership. Ecuadorian forward Eduardo "El Tanque" Hurtado says he feels the absence of Savarese, but showed no signs of that when he put away two against the Fusion. League-wide changes this year namely the possible experimentation with a two-ref system could have an adverse affect on the highly physical Colombian defender Arley "Shaka" Palacios, who started the season off with an ejection. Twice the refs, twice the vision, twice the "Shaka" action. Twice the red cards?
Joining Palacios on the backline is defender Mark Semioli, a Metro since July '97 and captain in Ramos's absence, who has noticed the difference with Bora at the helm of what has looked in the past like a perpetually sinking ship. "Last year we were winging everything," he said. Not so on Bora's watch. "Bora wants things the way he wants them, which can be really frustrating at times, especially for the younger players," he explained. "But I think it makes a difference guys know they're going to be watched for everything they do, good and bad."
Midfielder Miles Joseph, whose free kick beautifully assisted on Sunday's lone goal, added that it keeps players on their toes having to prove themselves again with a new coach. "It's tough," he said. "You can never get too comfortable." But if anyone understands the new coach, it's probably Mike Sorber, who won Bora's respect at midfield while playing under him in the 1994 World Cup. New faces shouldn't be a problem, he says: "Soccer's like a universal language. If you understand it, you can play together."
The young Petke has quickly proven that he can play with anyone. Just last year fans peered down from their seats asking, "Who's the blond?" (or redhead or brunette, depending on the day). Now, the same guy who asked permission to leave media day early last year (because no one was talking to him) is one of the more recognizable Metros and hopefully one that will be around for a while. Looking strong on defense, Petke also made some nice overlapping runs up the flank on Sunday. And the New Yorker's fan base continues to grow. The finalist for 1998 MLS Rookie of the Year laughingly calls 1999 his "post-traumatic rookie season." Petke describes his new coach as "interesting" and possessing "a different mentality than any coach I've ever had before." But he quickly adds that Bora "knows what he's doing. He's a winner. That's a good quality to have in a coach."
It's an even better quality to have in a team. And if the chemistry's right, Bora's big experiment may be followed by a long-awaited chain reaction of wins.