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In a wholly unanticipated development, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, an entity largely unknown and unheard of among the vast majority of metropolitan-area fans, and even less so among the sports departments of New York's media, have suddenly become competent, entertaining, and, in the most unexpected development of all, winners.
The MetroStars are rumored to be the local entry in the top soccer league in the United States.
You laugh, or you probably don't, but it's true. If you're not a soccer fan, well, we'll try to ignore that. But if you are one, you undoubtedly welcomed the founding of Major League Soccer and the Metros back in 1996, hailed as the return, after a dozen-year absence, of top-flight professional soccer in this country. You may have watched on TV when the Metros inaugurated their existence, playing Los Angeles before 69,000 fans at the Rose Bowl, or you may have been among the 47,000 who attended the Metros' first home game at Giants Stadium. It was an exciting time for soccer fans in the U.S., full of hope and sparkling visions of derby matches, cup finals, and passionate hordes of fans singing deafening team songs and setting off road flares in packed, seething stadiums.
But none of that came to pass. The crowds have dwindled down to tiny assemblages of perhaps 7000, rattling around in the barren vastness of 75,000-seat stadiums. And amid the mismanaged morass of the MLS, with its silly team nicknames, management schemes that can leave one owner controlling as many as three franchises, and turgid on-field play, one team has traditionally stood out as the worst, most boring of them all: the MetroStars. From 1996 through '99, they went 50-78the worst cumulative record of any of the league's 12 clubs. Even devout soccer fans who wanted nothing more than to support the MetroStars gave up on the team. They were so bad, and the football itself was so debased, that they just didn't care anymore.
But in the last month or so, a strange thing has taken place. Area fans have been tuning in to Channel 70, or other obscure cable niches, to have a glimpse at the Beautiful Gameand what's this? The Metros, passing accurately to one another, creating imaginative plays, scoring goalsclever goals, pretty goalsand winning! A glance at the standings, and yes, it's true: The MetroStars are in first place. It's enough to make you actually go out and see them play, just to confirm that it's really happening.
One Tuesday last week, the Metros find themselves hosting the Tampa Bay Mutiny in the Round of 16 of the U.S. Open Cup. Not a proper league game, and it is being played in the 8000-seat, high-schoolish environs of Mitchel Field on Long Island, but no matter. The MetroStars look great. Forward Roy Myers makes a brilliant 50-yard run and fires a shot that the Tampa keeper only just parries away. Midfielder Peter Villegas dribbles through two defenders and headmans the ball to U.S. National Teamer Clint Mathis, whose cannon drive just misses. Ancient Thomas Dooley, rumbling Alex Comas, and diminutive Mark Chung tic-tac-toe a series of passes that leaves the Tampa defense rooted to the earth. At halftime, it's 2-0 MetroStars. Six minutes into the reprise, with the crowd chanting and stomping their feet, Chung lofts a perfectly weighted service between two defenders to Mathis, who drills a screamer just under the bar to make it 3-0. That's how it ends, though it could've easily been six-nil. Every single MetroStar has performed superblyand that doesn't even include the likes of aging stars Tren Valencia or Tab Ramos, who barely played or didn't even dress at all. "The chemistry on this team is great," says Octavio Zambrano, the Metros' sixth coach in their five-year existence, outside the dressing room. "This has got to be one of the tightest groups I've ever had."
Which bring us to Lothar Matthäus.
Last November, the Metros announced they were bringing in Matthäus, an all-time great who captained Germany to World Cup and European Cup wins and led his Inter Milan and Bayern Munich teams to title after title. But why, at age 39, he would want to come to the lame MLS was a mystery, though most people think it has something to do with helping his girlfriend's modeling career in New York. The Metro GM who signed him, Charlie Stillitano, was fired, and Matthäus reacted by telling reporters, "You couldn't drag me to New York in handcuffs." He came anyway, but he played poorly; the Metros went 2-5 with him in the lineup, and it all came to a head in May, when he threw a tantrum on-field and tossed his captain's armband at a linesman. Matthäus went back to Europe to lead the Germans' disastrous performance in Euro 2000, came back to the Metros for one game, and hurt his back making a bicycle kick. In July, while recovering from the injury, he was photographed with his girlfriend on the beach at St. Tropez. This prompted the Empire Supporters Club, the Metros' diehard fan group, to circulate a poster of the photo bearing the caption "Vermisst [Missing]: Lothar Matthäus. Last seen getting toasted on the beach in France and getting burnt on the pitch in Holland and Belgium. If you see this person, do not call."
The latest flare-up involving Matthäus came last month, when he and Zambrano got in a pissing match in the German papers. Zambrano had taken issue with Matthäus's public disdain for the performance of Comas and some other Metros. "Octavio Zambrano offended me way too much," replied Matthäus. But last week, Matthäus finally agreed to come back. After the Tampa game, Zambrano was diplomatic about the famous libero's return. "Lothar Matthäus is not a guy who should be sitting on the bench," he said as one of his starting defenders, Daniel Hernandez, hobbled past with a season-ending knee injury. "And we have a hole to fill on defense."
But for now, the Matthäus flap has receded to the background. The team is clicking on all cylinders and had a 7-0-2 record in the nine games leading up to last weekend's all-star break. Meanwhile, Metros fans can scarcely believe their team's change in fortunes. "After so many years of dismal soccer, after so many years of being on the bottom," says Nathan Hillier of the Empire Supporters Club, "it's just an incredible feeling to be on top. All the people who have stuck by this team, now we have been rewarded. This is the season we'll all remember. This is the season we came out of the black hole."
Hard to believe, but true. For lapsed soccer fans in the area, there is, for the first time since the glory days of the Cosmos, a real reason to go out to Giants Stadium and cheer for the local team. Because the MetroStars, mirabile dictu, are finally playing creative, entertaining, competent soccer. And they're winning.