First XI: Amazin' Metros
I'm feeling nostalgic. Perhaps it is because I ran into Ted Gillen, a member of the original MetroStars, the other night at a high school basketball game in Toms River, N.J. (Ted is currently the boys coach at Toms River East). Or perhaps it's just because I can't get over the fact that MLS is about to enter it's 10th season. Since I've been with the league since the beginning, I'm going to dedicate this First XI to Gillen and the rest of the '96 Metros.
11. Opening Night at the Rose Bowl. I'll never forget the first Metro game, a Saturday night affair in the Rose Bowl. Early in the day, we started hearing reports that the game would be a sellout, meaning the "downsized" Rose Bowl capacity of 18,000 would be sold out. As afternoon approached, word got out that we could be looking at a crowd of 30,000 or more, and that they were going to do away with the downsizing. Early in the evening, I got into a car with Tom Friend, now a colleague of mine at ESPN The Magazine, who was covering the game for the New York Times. As we got caught in traffic outside the Rose Bowl, Friend says to me, "There's only one day of the year when you see traffic like this heading to the Rose Bowl ... January 1." Ultimately, a crowd of 69,000 and change gathered to watch the Galaxy defeat the MetroStars 2-1. I was told that another 10,000 fans were sent home because they needed to keep a portion of the seats empty for a fireworks display. It was an amazing beginning.
10. Home Opener. The Metros' second game overall was its home opener and more than 40,000 were on hand to see the MetroStars take on the New England Revolution. What I'll never forget was the fan reaction when the Metros took the field. They went berserk for a Metro team that was still awaiting the arrival of Roberto Donadoni and Tab Ramos. Of course, Metro fans will all remember how the game ended ... with a 90th minute own goal by Nicola Caricola. After the game, Nico answered many questions about the blunder, explaining that a Revs player had clipped his heel, causing him to touch the ball over Tony Meola's head. Upon review of the replay, there was no Rev within five yards of Caricola. There was no heel clipping. Just a Metro gaffe that will never be forgotten.
9. Even Worse. The MetroStars would lose their second MLS home match in equally horrendous fashion, dropping a 2-0 game to the Columbus Crew. The game marked the debut of Ramos, who played brilliantly save for one moment. With the Crew leading 1-0, the Metros were awarded a penalty kick. Now, I do not recall Tab ever taking a PK for the national team (which would've been the only times I'd ever seen Tab play up to that point in his career), but he wanted the ball on this occasion, his home debut for the Metro. As he went to take the kick, Ramos' feet slipped out from under him and he flubbed the ball right at Bo Oshoniyi. Moments later, Billy Thompson was scoring the insurance goal for the Crew and the MetroStars were 0-3.
8. First Flop. The home loss to Columbus was also the debut of the original Metro villain, Ruben Dario "Rubencho" Hernandez. Put it this way, Rubencho was the "king of goals" of his day, or so Metro was told. In his debut against Columbus, within the first five minutes of play, a ball fell to Hernandez's feet with an empty net to shoot at. He flubbed the shot and grabbed his head in disgust. He'd play nine more matches for Metro and score a grand total of zero goals. Rubencho was sent back to Colombia shortly after Carlos Queiroz came to the Metros to take over for original coach Eddie Firmani.
7. First Hero. Not only did he score the first goal in MetroStars history, Giovanni Savarese scored the first eight goals in MetroStars history. Amazingly, however, Savarese always struggled to find a place in the team's starting lineup.
6. First Cult Hero. With eight games to go in the regular season, the MetroStars finally found a replacement for Rubencho. His name was Antony De Avila and he was known as "El Pitufo" or "The Smurf." De Avila arrived and immediately set the league on fire. Scoring six goals and dishing out two assists in those eight games. De Avila was truly amazing in '96, finding little openings once or twice a game and finishing perfectly. The Metros were convinced they had a striker for the long haul, but a year later, when De Avila stopped finishing so efficiently, he was shipped out ... and never heard from again.
5. Clincher. My favorite De Avila goal came in the Metros final home game of the season, against the Crew. About 10 minutes in, he gets played into the box and absolutely ripped one into the upper corner past Brad Friedel, who had been all but unbeatable in the nets after arriving in Columbus from Turkey. De Avila's goal stood up for a 1-0 MetroStars victory that clinched the team a spot in the playoffs.
4. Playoffs. For my money, the most passionate playoff series ever contested in MLS was the first-round matchup between Metro and D.C. United. I remember saying to Filip Bondy of the New York Daily News, as I looked at D.C.'s fans as they bounced and sang, "Can you imagine people caring so much about a team that's been around such a short time?" The series was epic with the MetroStars winning the first game in a 10-round shootout (Savarese sent the game to the tiebreaker with a late equalizer off the bench), D.C. answering back in Game 2 with a 1-0 win, a late goal by Marco Etcheverry. I'll never forget the goal because Marco actually shot the ball with his right foot. I am now left to wonder if the it was the only right-footed goal of Etcheverry's MLS career. Game 3 lived up to the billing. D.C. took an early lead and was in total control of the game until De Avila scored late to equalize. In the waning moments, Roberto Donadoni hit the post with a free kick and De Avila missed an empty net from inside of six yards. Just as it looked like the game would go to a decisive shootout, Etcheverry gathered a ball outside the box, sidestepped one defender and was taken down by a fellow named Rob Johnson. A PK. Raul Diaz Arce buried it and D.C. United advanced and ultimately won it all. Not too long ago, Bruce Arena told me that '96 Metro team, coached expertly by Queiroz, was one of the most difficult teams any of his D.C. teams had to play against.
3. Aftermath. In a quiet Metro lockerroom, I walked up to Matt Knowles, a defender whom the Metros had taken with their first pick in the inaugural draft. Matt goes down in my book as the funniest player in MLS history. I patted him on the back and asked him, "Will you keep playing indoors?" To which Knowles looked around the locker room and stated, "Oh yeah, are you kidding me? This (stuff) here is WAY too serious."
2. First Departure. The post-mortems on that season had not even been written when we learned that Queiroz would be heading for the big, big bucks of the J-League, where he'd be coaching a team called Grampus Eight. It was a tough loss for the Metros. Queiroz was not only a good coach, but also a very hard worker who did an amazing job of making the '96 MetroStars a quality team. As we would learn later on, however, Queiroz was not one to stay put in any one place for very long. Japan was just another stop on a tour that has no end in sight. We'll see him back in MLS one day, rest assured.
1. First Offseason. So it was out with Queiroz and in with Carlos Alberto Parreira, one of the game's real gentlemen (who just so happens to be in charge of Brazil's national team once again). Parreira will not, however, go down as a great MLS coach. Not even if he wins another World Cup with Brazil. When you consider he had a team that consisted of the following players: Tony Meola, Peter Vermes, Branco, Roberto Donadoni, Tab Ramos, Antony De Avila and Shaun Bartlett, and did not make the playoffs. That's pretty hard to comprehend. It is all part of history. And as we enter Season 10, it's great to have it.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff at email@example.com and he promises to read (but not respond to) all of them. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.