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 Pel�, 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, tiebreaking 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 Bran-co, 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."