Friday November 21st, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- When he joined the New York Red Bulls from the England's Aston Villa in 2007, Juan Pablo Ángel didn't know much about the cesspool he was walking into in the Jersey Swamp.

"The worst pro team in America," I had written back in 1999 of the MetroStars, as the franchise was then known. The RotMasters, as they were called by Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner in a pitch-perfect anagram.

New York will meet the Columbus Crew in MLS Cup 2008 here on Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC and TeleFutura). And now that the Red Bulls are one game away from winning the MLS championship -- a sentence I can't believe I just wrote -- I asked Ángel at the team hotel on Thursday night how much he knew about the team's sad-sack past before he signed on.

"When Red Bull first contacted me, I started to make inquiries, but I never knew anything about the history of this franchise until I got here," said Ángel, New York's classy Colombian striker. "Then I started to get to know that it had never been successful, all the stories that everyone knows."

They're hilarious stories of ineptitude, on and off the field, 12 seasons of Epic Fail. And they started with the franchise's very first game, in which MetroStar Nicola Caricola stunned the home crowd of 46,826 with a last-second, tie-breaking shot ... into his own goal. There was Fan Appreciation Night in '97, when the team advertised $1 beers before the game in the stadium parking lot and then canceled the offer at the last second when it learned that stadium rules forbid such a thing. ("We called it Fan Depreciation Night," said one member of the Empire Supporters Club.)

Then there was the signing of midfielder Ruben Dario Hernández that same year, which prompted local Colombian fans to protest, arguing that Hernández was so bad, he was embarrassing their native country.

New York was able to sign big-name players, but those didn't work out very well either. Lothar Matthäus is best remembered for asking permission to visit a doctor in Europe and being photographed with his girlfriend on the beach in St. Tropez. Youri Djorkaeff left the team to deal with "an unexpected, serious family matter" and was then spotted attending one of France's '06 World Cup games instead.

Brazilian World Cup winner Branco distinguished himself by earning three red cards in 11 games. And even when Roberto Donadoni sung the team's praises to his Italian buddies, it wasn't the message that MLS probably wanted to convey. "I spoke with Donadoni about playing for the MetroStars, and he said it was good," Paolo Maldini once told me. "He got to play golf all day."

Things got so bad in '99 that Sports Illustrated dispatched me to write a story on the awfulness of the MetroStars, who were on their way to the worst season in MLS history under Bora Milutinovic (who still proudly claims that he is "the Record Man" for futility in MLS).

Those kinds of stories are more than a little uncomfortable -- I got to interview then-GM Charlie Stillitano about why his team was so terrible -- but they're kind of fun, too. The "highlight" was spending a rainy day in a near-empty Giants Stadium with the ESC in Section 101 as the Metros lost their 12th straight game and the fans lobbed insults at Milutinovic and inept forward Eduardo Hurtado.

I'll be thinking about those guys on Sunday as their beloved team tries to win its first trophy in club history. It won't be easy, not with league MVP and SI Latino Sportsman of the Year Guillermo Barros Schelotto on the opposing side, but at least the Red Bulls finally have a chance.

Even Ángel wants to use New York's sordid past as a positive. "For me it was kind of a personal challenge," he says. "New York is a place where only the winners are accepted. That is the most exciting thing right now, that we are making history. For the first time we managed to win the conference cup. And who knows what might happen on Sunday?"

If the Red Bulls can pull off the win, all those great old stories of woe might finally have to go into mothballs.

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