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 Friday, September 14, 2001 24:15 EST

Boot Room on tour: Washington, D.C.

By Jeff Bradley [ESPN The Magazine]

As promised, the Boot Room hit the road for a crazy week of soccer in this country of ours. Giving new life to the tired expression, "Only In America," we followed the U.S. national team into their qualifier in Columbus, then went on to Washington, D.C., for the MLS Cup final between the Chicago Fire and Kansas City Wizards. Where else in the world would you have a World Cup qually and Cup final in the same week? I think you know the answer to that question: "Only in America."

Keep an eye out for postcards from the road, which will appear at espnmag.com.

Monday, October 16, 2000
Washington, D.C.

Game, set and match to Tony Meola.

In so many ways, MLS 2000 was Meola's season, so it was fitting that he was the story of the MLS Cup final and the game's MVP.

Don't get me wrong here, it was a team victory for the Kansas City Wizards, who put their whole season into a neat 90-minute microcosm on Sunday at RFK Stadium. A scrappy early goal, a lot of prudent positional play, a heavyweight champion's ability to take one punch after another without ever going down. But mostly it was Meola.

Credit the keeper with getting into the Fire's collective psyche. There's a reason why Chicago kept hitting shots right into Meola, because they knew it was no ordinary keeper standing between the sticks. Instead of just picking a corner and stroking a shot, they seemed to see only Meola. It was a lot like a hitter facing Pedro Martinez, chasing pitches out of the strike zone and watching belt high fastballs right down the middle of the plate. The Fire seemed baffled in front of the goal.

As much as Kansas City's defense contributed to Meola's record 16 shutouts this season, yesterday Meola made his mates look good. Time and time again, the Fire got behind the K.C. backline, with just Meola to beat, only to be denied.

Perhaps the most critical stretch of the game came from minutes 60-75, when Kansas City was able to maintain some good possession and create a few dangerous chances off the counter. Those minutes put the Fire in a desperate state in the final 15 minutes, and by then they may have already been mentally beaten down by Meola.

In the end, the result is not a shocker, nor should anyone consider the Wizards championship victory an upset. Kansas City and the Fire tied for the most points during the regular season, with 57 apiece. The Wizards took the first seed in the playoffs and captured the Supporters' Shield because of goal differential, an amazing thing when you consider that Chicago scored 67 goals, 20 more than the Wizards, during the regular season. On Sunday, the Wizards were able to win it their way.

Brotherly confessions
As most of you know, Chicago Fire coach Bob Bradley is my older brother. Unless you're from a family that doesn't get along, or happen to hate one of your siblings, you probably understand that I was pulling for his team to win on Sunday.

Needless to say, it was an agonizing afternoon for me and all the family members who made the trip to RFK. I had to explain to my mother, as we watched the minutes tick away on the scoreboard, "This is why you can love soccer and hate soccer all at the same time. Two years ago, we sat in the Rose Bowl, praying Zach Thornton could keep D.C. United off the board, and we probably never thought about how the D.C. fans and family felt. Today, there's a group from K.C. who feel just the way we did a couple of years ago and we feel lousy."

Amazingly, I think my brother handles the wins and losses better than any of us. I just knew what he was going to say, when I saw him after the game, because I've heard him say these three words time and time again after these kinds of games.

"Not our day."

He explained himself a little further, saying, "There are days like this in soccer, where you put a lot of effort into attacking and creating chances and you just can't score. You just hate for one of those days to come in a final."

More cup noise
  • Former Italy and Juventus star striker Fabrizio Ravanelli, is said to have made contact with the MLS offices about playing in the league next season. One league official expressed skepticism that the silver-haired Ravanelli would fit the league's budget.

  • Also, expect the George Weah to MetroStars rumors to get hot again now that the Liberian superstar has walked away from Manchester City. For those who aren't aware, Weah has family in Brooklyn, bankrolls youth soccer teams on Staten Island and has said on numerous occasions that the MetroStars will be his final club.

  • Never too early to start trade buzz. Expect the New England Revolution to try to acquire Colombian forward Henry Zambrano from the Colorado Rapids this offseason. Revs coach Fernando Clavijo coached Zambrano during his MetroStars days. New England could certainly offer the Rapids a player like Imad Baba to complete the deal.

    Saturday, October 14, 2000
    Washington, D.C.

    A few weeks ago, MLS sent a memo that stated that next season, instead of teams wearing their colors at home and white on the road, all teams would wear their colors for all games, as long as the colors of the two teams contrasted. The white uniforms would only be worn in games where two same-colored teams matched up.

    So, when the red-shirted Chicago Fire and blue-shirted Kansas City Wizards advanced to the MLS Cup final, the league decided it was a good time for teams to start the new trend.

    Both teams would wear their colors in the final. To that end, both the Fire and the Wizards had MLS Cup 2000 patches sewn onto their shirts for the match.

    But when ABC TV producers got wind of this news, they blew the whistle and said, "We have black and white monitors in the truck and cannot distinguish between red and blue shirts." So, the Wizards as the No. 1 seed will wear blue and the Fire will wear white.

    Hristo Stoitchkov, for one, was not happy with the news, according to Fire equipment manager David Kammarman. "The team colors are important to Hristo," Kammarman says. "And anywhere else in the world, this would never happen if a red team and a blue team were playing one another."

    Cup buzz...
  • Wizards' striker Miklos Molnar would not answer any questions that had to do with his future, saying only, "I want to focus completely on this game." There is strong speculation that Molnar will hang up his boots following Sunday's match because he wants to begin a career as an Ironman Triathlete. Seriously.

  • Fire defender Tenywa Bonseu, who joined Chicago from the A-League's Pittsburgh Riverhounds, will go to Portugal following MLS Cup, where he will go on trial with several clubs. Chicago has already expressed interest in signing Bonseu long-term.

    Friday, October 13, 2000
    Washington, D.C.

    Commissioner Don Garber, along with MLS investor-operators Lamar Hunt and Clark Hunt, sat down with a group of media members this afternoon to talk about the state of the league in some general terms. Here are a few tidbits drawn from the session:

  • The Los Angeles stadium project is, according to Garber, nearing the "shovels in the ground" stage. The Chicago and New York stadium deals are gaining momentum.
  • There will definitely be an expansion team in 2002 in the New York market. Where exactly it will play (Long Island, Queens, Westchester County) has not been decided upon, though Long Island remains the prohibitive favorite.
  • The second 2002 expansion team will be in either Philadelphia or Atlanta, depending upon which WUSA franchise steps up to the plate first.
  • In 2004, there will be a couple more teams, with cities like Houston, Seattle, Milwaukee and Winston-Salem saying they have interest.

    There were a lot of other topics discussed, including the television contract, etc., and the league is doing its best to maintain a steady course of growth. If you want to check out what the commish said, go to MLSNet.com and read his quotes.

    Meanwhile, getting ready for the match
    After training for several days at less than full-speed, wearing thermal shorts to keep his injured hamstring warm, today Peter Nowak decided to go harder and lose the thermals. "It felt okay," the Fire captain said. "It's a final and I'm going to play. I was very nervous watching during the semifinals, so it's time for me to get back on the field and help."

    With Nowak in the Fire lineup, the biggest decision for coach Bob Bradley will be whether to start Diego Gutierrez or DaMarcus Beasley on the left side of the midfield. Bradley may favor the hard-tackling Gutierrez since K.C. does the abundance of its attacking from the right, through Chris Klein and Preki, who, while left-footed, seems to gravitate toward the right side of the field more often than not.

    Rookie of the Year Carlos Bocanegra, who did not start the third game of the semifinal series with the MetroStars because of a calf pull, should be back in the lineup and joining forces with C.J. Brown and Tenywa Bonseu to try and stop the Wizards' hard-driving forward tandem of Miklos Molnar and Mo Johnston.

    Learning from the past?
    Hard to put much stock in the two games the Fire and Wizards played this season. The first time they met, Chicago's backup keeper at the time, Greg Sutton, had a disaster, letting in three bad goals in a 4-3 Kansas City victory -- a game, by the way, that was 4-1 Wizards before the Fire got a couple of late and, really, meaningless goals. Interestingly, however, is that K.C. fielded a lineup that will most likely start in Sunday's final. The Fire did not have Peter Nowak for that game and started a forward by the name of Junior Agogo, who played his only 57 minutes in a Chicago uniform that night.

    In the second matchup, the Wizards did not have Miklos Molnar and the Fire were playing without national teamers Ante Razov and Chris Armas. After a 2-2 first half that was wide open, the Fire got a goal from Josh Wolff in the 55th minute and put the clamps on the Wizards the rest of the way for a 3-2 victory.

    The players on both teams will tell you they have come a long way since June 4, which was the last time they met.

    Seen and heard
  • Ben Olsen flew to England last night to join Nottingham Forest on a three-month loan. "Can't wait to see what it's all about," Olsen said. When told that Forest manager David Platt is a demanding manager who asks his players to pour their hearts into everything they do, Olsen said, "that's the easy part for me. That's something I promise he'll get."

  • Landon Donovan's name came up at Fire practice today and one player commented, "When we played the U-17s last year, he was openly telling guys on our team that he thought MLS sucked and there was no way he'd sign with an MLS team. That's fine if he wants to say that, but if he ever does surface in this league, some guys will remember."

    For what it's worth, Donovan's U-17 teammate, Fire midfielder DaMarcus Beasley told me a while back, "Landon's the real deal and he taught me a lot about how important it is to compete every time you step on the field. No one works harder than Landon."

  • It shouldn't come as a secret to anyone, but several league sources said the word they were getting as to why Bob Gansler won Coach of the Year over Octavio Zambrano was not so much because K.C. played better than the Metros, but because people thought Gansler and the Wizards deserved credit for putting their club together in a more traditional manner. "Some people can't get over that the MetroStars were 3-6 before the Dispersal Draft brought them Clint Mathis," said one coach. "Kansas City went unbeaten through their first 12 because of what they did in the draft and with offseason trades."

  • MetroStars are saying they expect to have an announcement regarding their future stadium plans in the next 45-60 days. Newark is still considered the front-runner, but a soccer stadium at the Meadowlands might make too much sense economically to refuse. According to one source, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority has already told the Metros they'll build them a "Columbus-style stadium" on a plot of land outside Giants Stadium where currently there is an old practice-track for Harness Racing.

    Keep checking back for more from the Boot Room...

    Thursday, October 12, 2000
    Columbus, Ohio, 9:30 a.m.

    The lead up to last night's match was very exciting. Just the thought of putting a makeshift lineup on the field for a World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica had a lot of fans and media members speculating about who would have to "show something." You knew going in the center of the U.S. midfield was going to be a big question mark. When you cross off, first, Claudio Reyna's name, then Tab Ramos' and then John O'Brien's, you know the creativity and passing is going to take a major step back.

    Still, you had to wonder if a guy like Jovan Kirovski would respond to the challenge, or if Bruce Arena would throw a bone to a kid like Clint Mathis, who has to be riding a wave of confidence after being nominated for the MLS Most Valuable Player Award, or Josh Wolff, who was one of the best players in the entire Olympic tournament.

    The possibilities were exciting.

    Alas, the performance was not. Kirovski never threatened. Mathis only warmed up and Wolff got 21 minutes. And the U.S. created maybe one decent scoring chance in 90 minutes. All in all, a disappointing night at Crew Stadium.

    No, it didn't figure to be easy against the Ticos with all those players missing, but there seemed to be the potential that some thing, or some body might burst onto the scene.

    "There was too much space between the midfield and the forwards," said Ante Razov. "Joe-Max (Moore) and I were kind of free-lancing up there for a lot of the game."

    "We had to respect that they're a good counter-attacking team," explained Chris Armas, "and Jovan may have been a little hesitant to leave the midfield wide open. We told him to go forward, and he did, but we couldn't break them down."

    Said Wolff, "Chris Albright and I had shaky first touches when we came on, but after that I think we did okay. We know we can bring some pace to the field, and we know that's our job. It's disappointing not to win at home, but the team still feels it will advance."

    Seen and heard

  • MLS is going to talk about some radical new playoff formats for next season, including a one-game knockout tournament. Yes, that's how angry the league is about the poor attendance figures from this year's playoffs. Seems the most likely change will be to a format suggested here several weeks ago where, basically, the playoffs would go to a third game if and only if the series is tied on points, either 3-3 or 1-1.

  • New England coach Fernando Clavijo was in town to watch Rev/Tico forward William Sunsing. "William showed great improvement this year," said Clavijo. "And probably the most important thing he did was begin a weight training program. As he got stronger, he got better. We think we've got ourselves a player with William, no doubt." Clavijo also said the Revs hold an option on Spanish forward Jose Luis Morales. "We think he's a good player, but there's also a feeling that your foreign players have to be better than good. We'll see."

  • The Chicago Fire are close to signing two new business partnerships that would translate into 5,000 more tickets sold per game. Fire GM Peter Wilt was also so kind as to show me sketches of the Fire House. I'm sworn to secrecy, of course, but can tell you it's a spectacular plan to bring the U.S. it's first English-style stadium.

    Wednesday, October 11, 2000
    Columbus, Ohio, 12:30 p.m.

    As everyone knows, Bruce Arena has been tight-lipped about his roster and his lineup this week, not wanting to tip his hand in any way. I gather that some of the media are annoyed at the coach, but it does add an element of intrigue to the game. For one thing, the Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion listed Tab Ramos and David Regis in the lineup, which would be great if either one of those players was in Columbus, but they're not ... so maybe Arena's quiet approach has worked. Not that it's going to matter at 8 p.m., anyway. At that point, whatever team the U.S. puts on the field is going to have to play against a formidable opponent.

    From what I gathered snooping around the hotel restaurant, Arena is planning on going with a 3-5-2 formation. He'll definitely start Kasey Keller in goal, and most likely use Greg Berhalter as a center back, Jeff Agoos on the left and Carlos Llamosa on the right. Llamosa will be asked to mark Costa Rican's most dangerous forward, Manchester City star Paulo Wanchope.

    Look for twin defensive midfielders, with Chad Deering playing alongside Chris Armas. In front of them, you'll most likely see Jovan Kirovski, as an attacking midfielder. On the midfield flanks, Tony Sanneh is expected to man the left and Cobi Jones will play the right. Up front, Joe-Max Moore and Ante Razov are expected to start.

    While the U.S. hopes to surprise the Ticos with their starters, the bigger surprise may come when the U.S. goes to the bench. Quietly, the U.S. thinks they can unleash some firepower that Costa Rica may not know exists, namely Clint Mathis and Josh Wolff. Both were described as confident very much in form during this week's camp.

    Other buzz at this hour...
  • Greg Berhalter has signed a one-month contract to play for Everton in the English Premier League. "I had a 10-day trial there that went very well," Berhalter said. "And now I'm hoping this one-month deal can lead to something long-term. I'm really excited to play in England, and it's great to have Joe-Max Moore there to show me around. In all my years in Holland, I never had an American teammate."

  • Chicago Fire midfielder/defender Diego Gutierrez, called into camp, will not be activated for tonight's game. There is, apparently, still some question as to whether the Colombian-born Gutierrez is eligible to play and according to one U.S. Soccer official, "We think he will be able to play eventually, but we can't take the chance that he's ineligible." There is some question as to whether Gutierrez played for a Colombian youth squad in an Under-17 tournament. According to a source, the Colombian Federation claims it does not have any paper work showing that Gutierrez ever represented his country.

    Make sure to check back in later...

  • Boot Room: Soccer's death knell?

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