The MetroStars' shootout semifinal loss (2-1) to D.C. United on Saturday night eliminated the local footers from the MLS playoffs, ending a third lackluster season. As the losers walked off the plastic pitch of Giants Stadium and 11,686 faithful shuffled to the parking lot, league and team execs sat in the luxury boxes asking themselves the now perennial question, ''How do you solve a problem like the MetroStars?''
Try a new coach? Nah . . . Bora Milutinovic's the fifth in three seasons. Big name players? Overaged Italian star Nicola Caricola and the plum and well-aged Brazilian Branco didn't exactly work out. And while Alexi Lalas has been a good clubhouse presence, he's had a tough time getting fans to warm up to him. ''We're only three years old,'' said defender Rhett Harty. ''It's nobody's fault yet,'' he said, adding that the league needs to be more open to accepting constructive criticism.
Tell that to MLS commissioner Doug Logan. He knows that the New York club is ''extraordinarily important'' to the league. So, who's he pointing at? The folks in marketing, natch.
Marketing? Come again?
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Although he says he knows it's no easy job to sell a New YorkNew Jersey hybrid soccer team against two baseball teams, two football teams, the U.S. Open, and other incidentals (like the Goodwill Games and the World Cup), Logan has been critical about efforts to promote the team. He's concerned, he says, about the ''ongoing lack of coverage here'' by a media that ''defines who you are.'' On the field, performance can't be held entirely responsible for the falloff in average attendance from 23,898 in 1996 to 16,899 in 1997, where the MetroStars stayed in 1998. The media stay away because the fans stay away. And the fans stay away because they aren't being reached. Just look at the Revolution, New England's last-place team. With their doggedly devoted fans, they've proven you can put asses in the seats even if you're not putting balls in the net. Former Rev Lalas describes ticket-office staffers as ''some of the hardest-working people I've ever met.'' New England's average attendence, 19,187, is second in the league.
Sources say that some league-wide, front-office housecleaning is coming, but no one knows if New York will get a light dusting or have their carpets steamed. Bora says he wants to stay and GM Charlie Stillitano says he wants Bora to stay. The real question, though, is who wants Stillitano to stay? By many accounts, his days are numbered, though his close ties to deputy commissioner Sunil Gulati may help him survive.
''If we had 10 different teams in places like Oklahoma City or Kalamazoo that were drawing 40,000 a game, it wouldn't matter that we weren't drawing in New York,'' says Metros defender Lalas. But as it stands, the bigger markets bear the burdens of attendance and reputation. And the potential for media exposure New York City offers is too great to waste in the swamps of New Jersey. Logan says he has had positive talks with Mayor Giuliani about the future of soccer in New York and looks forward to the possibility of the Metros' playing in Shea Stadium when the Mets move out.
Still, winning--no matter where they call home--would help. As for a fix on the field, ''It's time to reassess domestic and foreign players,'' Lalas says, ''and I'll be part of that reassessment.'' Lalas, who says he's had ''a blast'' in New York and would like to stay, ''wouldn't be surprised'' if he were traded. ''There are going to be some changes, and
honestly, there have to be for things to get better.''
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