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MLS at the break
Read all about it... who's hot and who's not
Latest: Thursday July 27, 2000 01:21 AM
With the MLS All-Star break here, CNNSI.com's Michael Lewis offers updates on the
most important storylines
of the season, who's
hot and who's not, and some predictions
for the second half.
WORST TO FIRST. The Cinderella stories of this season are the New
York/New Jersey MetroStars and Kansas City Wizards, who went from being the
two worst teams in 1999 to the two best this season. K.C. recently hit a few
bumps in the road, while the MetroStars came into their own. Can they keep
winning to create a very special MLS Cup on Oct. 15?
TRAFFIC JAM. It's so close that the Central Division standings can be
completely changed from top to bottom in only two games. It is the most
competitive division. Last place could mean nothing here. Don't be surprised
if all four teams reach the playoffs and the second-place team in the Eastern
Division fails to in its quest. It's mathematically possible. Remember, the
three division winners and the next five teams with the highest point totals
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE. Due to his price tag ($4 million) and
circumstances of his arrival with the Los Angeles Galaxy (that special
dispersal draft), Mexican forward Luis Hernandez, like it or not, will be
under scrutiny for the rest of the season. After a slow start, it appears
Hernandez is starting to get into the swing of things. It might be too late
to dramatically boost L.A.'s attendance, but certainly not its playoff
WHEN COMPETITIONS COLLIDE. The league will be disrupted several times
from the last week of the regular season in September through mid-October due
to World Cup qualifiers and the Olympics. The U.S. meets Guatemala in
Washington, D.C., on Sept. 3, right in the middle of the final week of the
season as several teams will be undoubtedly scrambling for playoff berths. At
the same time, several teams will lose their top Under-23 players to the
Olympics. And only four days before MLS Cup on Oct. 15, the Americans face
Costa Rica in Columbus. These will not be happy times for contending teams.
A RESURRECTION. A right groin tear has shelved Bulgarian striker Hristo
Stoitchkov for most of the season. He was supposed to be one of those marquee
players expected to give the league and Chicago Fire a lift on and off the
field. When he's been healthy, Stoitchkov has been productive (five goals in
nine matches). Can he get healthy enough to give the Fire a much-needed boost
in the post-season?
Clint Mathis. Has a player in any professional sport been traded in
midseason and become a legitimate MVP candidate? I haven't been able to think
of anyone. (Maybe Rick Sutcliffe with the 1984 Chicago Cubs.) Of all the MetroStars' acquisitions this season, Mathis has been
the most important. If the MetroStars continue their roll, Mathis will be the
overwhelming MVP favorite.
Dante Washington. Could you imagine where the Columbus Crew would be if
it didn't have Washington? Probably out of the playoff picture. Washington
has been involved in 21 of the team's 35 goals (14 goals, seven assists). A
great guy, Washington is one of the best feel-good stories of the year.
Carlos Valderrama. He certainly isn't getting any younger and can be
temperamental, but Valderrama continues to set up dangerous scoring
opportunities with his unique vision, through balls and uncanny passing. The
Tampa Bay Mutiny midfielder has aged gracefully, something players such as
Lothar Matthaeus can learn from.
Tony Meola. He has been the cornerstone of the Kansas City Wizards'
defense, although he will be the first to tell you it has been a team effort.
Meola symbolizes K.C.'s turnaround and excellent defensive play. You
shouldn't surprised that Meola has been stellar this season. As it turns out,
he exels in even-numbered years -- 1996, 1998 and now 2000.
Jason Kreis. The Dallas Burn forward is on track for yet another 15-15
season. Moreover, can he and Ariel Graziani keep the Burn on track for a
fifth consecutive playoff berth in the tough Central Division?
D.C. United. You know what D.C. in United stands for these days?
Disaster and Calamity. If the defending champs manage to make the playoffs,
it will take a minor miracle or a deal with the devil to pull it off.
Miami Fusion. I would be surprised if they are not relocated for the
2002 season. Despite a strong soccer base in South Florida, they can't
attract anyone and continue to struggle. Do you think the league will move
the team to Rochester, Houston, Philadelphia, Charlotte or the Pacific
Lothar Matthäus. Will someone please put him on a plane with a one-way
ticket to Munich, Germany, so we can he put out of his misery? Matthäus, who
was voted in as an All-Star starter on name and reputation and not on
performance, has been the most disappointing foreign signing this season if
not in league history. Quite frankly, I am sick of chronicling his problems
and his whining.
Khodadad Azizi. He ranks second behind Matthäus as the biggest bust. The
Iranian midfielder's playing time and effectiveness has been limited to a goal
and four assists in a dozen games due to injuries, suspensions and national
team commitments. Yet, like Matthäus, Azizi got in on his name as an All-Star
Chicago Fire. I keep hearing from soccer insiders that they're the team
to beat. We still haven't seen the best of the Fire this season due to
injuries, national team call-ups and an inconsistent defense. With other
World Cup qualifiers and the Olympics looming over the horizon, I wonder if
1. The champions are... The MetroStars. It's more than luck. It's hard
work from coach Octavio Zambrano and general manager Nick Sakiewicz, turning
around a losing image and mentality and molding an open attack with a young,
but hard-nosed defense. The MetroStars are fun to watch. The only question
is: Where are the fans at Giants Stadium? Here's one more prediction: The
MetroStars will prevail over the Wizards on Oct. 15, 2-1. I love storybook
endings (even if the Wizards win, as well).
2. The MVP is . . . Clint Mathis. He hasn't missed a beat since coming over
from L.A. Remember, MVPs don't necessarily have to lead the league in scoring
or have big numbers (although Mathis' are fine). They have to be impact
players. None has made a bigger impact.
3. Scoring champion . . . Mamadou Diallo. The Tampa Bay Mutiny forward
is helped by a brilliant passer in Carlos Valderrama, but his speed and ability to get open is
what makes Diallo so dangerous. Diallo isn't afraid to shoot. He leads the
league in shots as well.
4. Coach of the year . . . Zambrano. This was a close call between him and
K.C.'s Bob Gansler. You can make a legitimate case for either man. Zambrano's
accomplishment stands out more when you consider what was at stake for the
league, which needs a competitive team in New York to survive and perhaps
thrive. While the Wizards had a couple of winning seasons prior to 2000, the
MetroStars have never finished above .500.
5. Goalkeeper of the year is . . . Meola. Just see what I said about him in
the item above. Incredible as it may sound, Meola has never been selected as
MLS goalkeeper of the year. If he isn't this season, it's a crime.
6. Rookie of the year . . . K.C. defender Nick Garcia. He has played well in
every minute of every game this season for the league's stingiest defense.
7. Defender of the year . . . Robin Fraser. You can make a strong case for
teammate Greg Vanney, K.C.'s Peter Vermes and Colorado's Marcelo Balboa. But
Fraser is the bigger name on a solid defense, and don't laugh, he might get
some sympathy votes after his collarbone injury in MLS Cup '99.
8. Goal of the year . . . by Balboa. Unless someone else scores a prettier
goal, Balboa's majestic bicycle kick is the best that has hit the back of the
net this season.
Michael Lewis covers soccer for the New York Daily News. His third book, Soccer For Dummies, was published this spring.
To submit a question or comment to Michael Lewis, click here.
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