An Old Flame
Bora Milutinovic is back, using matches to ignite the MetroStars
Bora Milutinovic, budding pyromaniac, burst from a hotel conference room in Waltham, Mass., last Saturday afternoon and began searching for matches. It was six hours before his debut as coach of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, against the New England Revolution, and he wanted to show his new team a parlor trick When he returned to the room, he dumped 20 matches into an ashtray and tossed in a lighted match. Nothing happened. Then he grabbed a full matchbook and lit one match without tearing it out Soon the whole matchbook was blazing like a tiny tiki torch. "See?" Milutinovic said. "If you are together, you can go forward."
It was a much-needed lesson for the erratic MetroStars, who had lost eight of 10 games when Milutinovic, the only coach to lead four countries to the second round of the World Cup, replaced Alfonso Mondelo on Sept. 21. The move quickly paid off, with a 1-0 shootout victory last Saturday night. Now, a Bora-led upset of the Crew in the teams' first-round playoff, which began on Wednesday in Columbus, would only further validate his approach: He doesn't reconstruct teams so much as deconstruct them with the zeal of Jacques Derrida. "He asks questions that are so basic you think he's crazy," says midfielder Mike Sorber, one of four MetroStars who played for Milutinovic with the U.S. team in World Cup '94. "What's the most important thing on the field? The ball. What's the most important play? The next play. They're so simple, but a lot of us don't know the answers."
At every practice last week, the MetroStars performed Milutinovic's notorious "one player, one ball" drill, in which each player merely dribbles around the field. "You must know the feel of the ball to play the game," says Bora. "It drives guys nuts," says defender Alexi Lalas, another alumnus of Bora's U.S. team, "but now we know that there's a method to the madness. In '94 we didn't."
Not that Milutinovic's rescue plan is based just on smoke and mirrors. Last week he not only ran the MetroStars through their first two-a-day practices all season but also sidled up to rookie defender Mike Petke and in five minutes changed the way Petke plays. Instead of defending with his body turned toward the sideline, he now faces attackers head-on. "I'll stick with it," Petke said. "Bora knows what he's doing."
At least he does until the MetroStars' playoff run ends; Milutinovic is still interested in the vacant U.S. team position. "I am happy that they invited me to New York," he says, "but tomorrow may be different. Tomorrow I don't know where I go."
Year-end MLS Awards
MVP: the Devil Himself
Why is D.C. United midfielder Marco Etcheverry MLS's most valuable player? Simple. While Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Cobi Jones may have had gaudier stats this season (19 goals and 13 assists), no player controlled games more than Etcheverry (10 goals and 19 assists), the linchpin of the league's best team. El Diablo, as the 28-year-old Bolivian is known, possesses two things that are all too rare in MLS: jaw-dropping ball skills and playmaking genius.
Coach of the Year: Bob Bradley. Bradley guided the first-year Chicago Fire to the third-best record (20-12) by blending productive veterans (including three Poles, led by midfielder Peter Nowak) with developing U.S. talent (goalkeeper Zach Thornton and forwards Ante Razov and Josh Wolff). The result: solidarnosc and a title contender.
Rookie of the Year: Ben Olsen. Proof that the Project-40 developmental program works, Olsen (four goals, eight assists) left Virginia after his junior year, in 1997, and improved exponentially as a starter for United.