Deriding The Metros The woeful play of its flagship franchise raises serious questions about MLS

September 19, 1999

Rooting for the worst pro team in America is like backing Lamar
Alexander for president, with one cruel exception: Unlike
Alexander, the New York/New Jersey MetroStars can't simply bow
out of their campaign, dignity intact. Which explains why only
four rain-soaked members of the Empire Supporters Club were
standing in Lot 16A at Giants Stadium earlier this month,
downing beers and brats shortly before the MetroStars lost to
the Chicago Fire 2-1 for their 12th consecutive defeat, an MLS
record. "Everyone has lost faith, and it's sad," said Kevin
McAllister, president of the 245-member fan club. "This is a
city where 80,000 people will turn out to watch soccer, but only
if it's something they believe in."

New York believed in the Cosmos, the NASL's marquee team of the
1970s, who attracted SRO crowds to Giants Stadium to watch such
legends as Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia. The
MetroStars? Fuhgeddaboudit. New York/New Jersey, positioned to
be MLS's flagship, has achieved only a staggering record of
ineptitude. In four seasons it has gone through five coaches and
78 players and never finished with a winning record. Average
attendance, which was 23,898 in the inaugural season of 1996,
was 15,206 this year through Sunday, including a team-record-low
official crowd of 6,876 last month (though no more than 2,000
spectators could be seen in the stands). The Metros were 6-22
and on pace to set league marks for fewest goals (they had 27)
as well as wins. In their last 38 matches, dating back to August
1998, they had won just three times in regulation.

"We're actually starting to get pity from the supporters in the
rest of the league," laments ESC member Tom Beck. "You know it's
a pathetic situation when a New York team in any league is no
longer hated. I was at a New England game, and the fans there
can't even bother to hate us anymore. We're not worth it."

Ask MetroFans to name the worst moments in team history, and
their mock reverie sounds like the "flashback" episode of a
long-running sitcom--or, in this case, a never-ending
tragicomedy. There was the first home game ever, when MetroStars
defender Nicola Caricola stunned the crowd of 46,826 with a
last-second, tie-breaking shot...into his own goal. There was
Fan Appreciation Night two years ago, when the Metros advertised
one-dollar beers before the game in the stadium parking lot and
then canceled the offer at the last second when they learned
that stadium rules forbid such a thing. ("We called it Fan
Depreciation Night," says McAllister.) Then there was the
signing of midfielder Ruben Dario Hernandez that same year,
which prompted local Colombian fans to protest, arguing that
Hernandez was so bad he was embarrassing their native country.

The Metros' futility is epic, but it's no laughing matter to a
struggling league trying to answer several thorny questions:

How did the MetroStars get so bad? In addition to the high
turnover among players and coaches, it hasn't helped that U.S.
midfielder Tab Ramos, the league's first signee, has missed more
than half of New York/New Jersey's games, mostly because of
injuries, or that his play in MLS has been marked by
inconsistency and petulance. What's more, MetroStars general
manager Charlie Stillitano and his coterie of coaches have shown
a blind eye for talent, passing over such local prospects as
Chris Armas and Carlos Llamosa. (Both are now on the U.S. team.)
Finally, Stillitano has consistently put too much faith in
big-name foreigners who have either spurned him after brief
tours with the Metros for better offers overseas (Italian
midfielder Roberto Donadoni and coaches Carlos Queiroz and
Carlos Alberto Parreira) or failed miserably in the Meadowlands
(Brazilian defender Branco, Chilean midfielder Marcelo Vega and
the incumbent coach, Bora Milutinovic).

This season has been a singular fiasco. After Stillitano and
Milutinovic decided to rebuild around marquee foreign players in
the off-season, they traded goalkeeper Tony Meola, defender
Alexi Lalas and forward Giovanni Savarese, the Metros' alltime
leading scorer, to fit under the salary cap. Then New York/New
Jersey dumped two foreigners in June, when it appeared that
Germany's five-time World Cup veteran, 38-year-old sweeper
Lothar Matthaeus, was ready to sign with the MetroStars. That
deal fell through, however, and the team didn't fill its foreign
spots until after midseason, by which time its long slide
(fueled by a rash of injuries) had already begun. The only
saving grace? Matthaeus will finally join New York/New Jersey in
2000 and said last week that he would also be interested in
taking over as coach.

What do the MetroStars' woes mean for MLS? "To some extent,
right or wrong, the fortunes of the league rest on the image and
viability of a franchise in the Number 1 media market in the
world," new commissioner Don Garber says. That said, there's a
range of opinions on how much the single-entity league should
help the Metros at the expense of its other 11 clubs. (MLS
controls all player contracts, though it attempts to accommodate
a team if it seeks a specific player.) "You can't break the
rules," says Garber, "but you have to push them to the limit."

Who's responsible for this mess? Depends on whom you ask. At
Metrofan.com, whose opening page proclaims WE SUCK, more than
650 supporters have signed an E-mail petition to jettison
Stillitano. While Garber can't hire and fire team executives, he
will likely use his limited influence with MetroStars co-owner
Stuart Subotnick. "Some bold move is definitely necessary at
this point," Garber says.

Yet, unfathomably to the team's remaining fans, Subotnick
maintains that neither Stillitano nor Milutinovic has any reason
to worry about his job security. "I think the fans are a little
hard on Charlie," he says. "If he were the G.M. of the Yankees
or Knicks, they would be 100 percent right in asking for his
head. But he doesn't control the hiring of ballplayers. He and I
never see a contract."

"If you look at the won-loss record, yeah, let's fire everybody
and start again," says Stillitano. "But look at the credibility
we've brought to this league. This team has brought three
world-class coaches to MLS, and it's fair to say I had a hand in
the Donadoni and Matthaeus negotiations. If you look at it
fairly, those are probably the five hardest signings this league
has ever had."

Not everything in the Metros' future looks dim. After all,
Matthaeus, last season's player of the year in Germany, could
become the leader they've never had. What's more, by the end of
this year the club hopes to announce specific plans for its own
$45 million, 30,000-seat English-style stadium, which would be
located either in downtown Newark or next to Giants Stadium and
be ready for the 2001 season.

For now, though, that won't keep the ESC from belting out its
achingly hilarious Songs of Cynicism in Section 101 of Giants
Stadium, just as the club did during the 2-1 loss to the Fire.
To honor Eduardo Hurtado, the striker who has scored only two
goals in 17 matches, ESC members modified Guantanamera ("He
couldn't score in a whorehouse!"). For Milutinovic they spoofed
The Doors' Love Me Two Times ("You've won only two times, now go
awaaaaay!"). And as the final seconds of another defeat ticked
off, they sang their all-too-common requiem:

We lose at home and we lose away.
We lost last week and we'll lose today!

COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN In their last 38 matches Hurtado and his mates have won just three times in regulation.

Says new commissioner Garber, "Some bold move is definitely
necessary at this point."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)