Such is the state of soccer in America that it’s practically impossible to write an article about any single match without talking about the State of Soccer in America. Even the Major League Soccer playoff semifinal game between the MetroStars and Chicago at the Meadowlands on Saturday—a ripping, gripping contest won by the Metros, 2-0—has to fall under this rubric. No one would dare talk about the Yankees this way—say that because the Bombers are on a horrible losing streak it’s bad for baseball and in fact, if it goes on much longer the American League might have to fold. That would be ridiculous.
But, alas, that’s how it works with soccer, even after all these years. So, in this context, which image from Saturday is most appropriate? The crowd of 16,000 showing their knowledge of even the most arcane soccer laws, screaming at the referee the instant he screwed up the advantage rule, mistakenly stopping play for a Chicago foul while the Metros had the ball? Or the sight of Chicago’s Bulgarian star Hristo Stoitchkov sitting alone and naked in the postgame dressing room, utterly unattended by reporters in the same area where, at the World Cup in 1994, he fielded questions in four languages from roughly 100 writers? The standing ovation the Metros got for prolonging this semifinal series until Friday’s decisive Game 3? Or the 60,000 empty seats that two decades ago were filled by fans dying to witness Pele, Beckenbauer, and the Cosmos?
That’s a tough one to answer, just as tough, if we may digress for a moment, as the question of where the U.S. men’s national team stands after the Olympic squad finished fourth last week in Australia. The coach, Clive Charles, and everyone else connected with the team said that getting to the bronze-medal game showed that the Americans can play with anyone in the world. “We’ve played European teams,” Charles said. “We’ve played everybody. The gap is closed.”
Problem is, the Olympic tournament signifies little, if anything at all, in terms of a nation’s footballing strength. If it did, Germany and Britain and Argentina would have shelves of Olympic soccer gold medals. But if you do want to use the Amerk men’s Olympic showing as a barometer, look out, because the Americans actually finished with one win, three ties, and two losses down under. That is, one—count ’em, one—win, over mighty Kuwait. But back to the MetroStars.
As noted here before, the Metros, after four and a half seasons of boring, miserable soccer, are playing competently, even brilliantly at times. Facing elimination Saturday against the Fire, they were as brilliant as they have ever been. The first half was extremely rugged, with at least 30 fouls called and four yellow cards issued—clearly, playoff soccer is as intense as playoff hockey or playoff basketball, only no Metro fan would know it, since the team has never gotten this far in the postseason before.
But what really stood out was how fast the Metros looked without the injured Tab Ramos in the lineup. In his absence, the playmaking role fell to Clint Mathis, who should be starting for the national team instead of warming its bench. He distributed the ball frantically, if not smoothly—but extremely accurately. With Mathis in midfield, Alex Comas started up front in tandem with Adolfo Valencia. Comas is one of those big-chested guys on the verge of plumpness, the kind you see playing on a dirt field in Corona on a Sunday afternoon. He helped create the first goal, working the ball in the corner with Lothar Matthäus, then crossing it just outside the penalty area to Mark Chung.
What Chung did with that pass, if you know him only from his listless national-team stint of the early and mid ’90s, defies belief. He took the low pass on the volley, and slammed it toward the net. The ball hit a Chicago defender, rebounded right back to him, and while everyone else stood frozen in a moment’s indecision, the 5-7 Chung rumbled forward and ripped a grass-level screamer into the corner. Like the new Metros, the new Mark Chung is tireless on the ball, creative, and full of jump.
In the second half, Chicago slowly but surely wrested control from the Metros. The old pro Stoitchkov—the mainstay of the surprising Bulgarian team that lasted until the semifinal round of the ’94 World Cup, and the best player in the world for at least a couple of years in the last decade—made trouble everywhere for the Metros defense. But each time he threatened, he was stopped by the ancient German sweeper Matthäus. Earlier this season Matthäus, himself once the greatest player on earth, was theatrically unhappy to be here; he had come to New York mainly to help further the career of his fashion-model girlfriend, and once he got a look at the sparse crowds, media apathy, and general small-timeyness of the MLS, he wanted out.
But now, with the Metros on the verge of the MLS Cup Final and his old nemesis Stoitchkov opposite, the 39-year-old Matthäus was galvanized. He roamed the backline superbly, sent laser passes 50 yards downfield right onto the chests of his forwards, and stood disdainfully over fallen Chicago players, barking at them to get up and quit rolling around melodramatically in search of a foul call. Matthäus, both physically and temperamentally, looked like a smaller version of Mark Messier, circa 1994, the year the Rangers won the Stanley Cup and also, not coincidentally, the year Stoitchkov’s Bulgaria eliminated Matthäus’s Germany on this same Giants Stadium field. That latter memory must have been on Matthäus’s mind on the play when he matched the still-speedy Bulgarian step for step over 20 yards, stripped him of the ball, and sent it back upfield to the Metros attackers.
With seven minutes left and Chicago looking like it was going to equalize, the Metros struck back on the counterattack. On a play that spanned 70 yards, Valencia, big, tanklike, and utterly deserving of his nickname, “El Tren,” took a fine return pass from Mathis just outside the area and slotted it home, sealing the Metros’ victory.
So what is the current State of Soccer, if not in America, then at least in New York? Hard to say, but this much is true: The Times actually ran two stories, with two pictures, on Saturday’s game. Never heard of that happening before. And what’s more, if the Metros win Friday, it’s a sure bet you’ll find a lot of New York fans on the 6 a.m. train to Washington on October 15. They’ll march, singing and chanting, from Union Station to RFK Stadium for a championship game that, if played up to the level of the Metros’ recent matches, will be worthy of the title, Cup Final. And you can be sure that the State of Soccer in America, at least on that day, will be just fine.