It took 15 years to arrive, but on Thursday night I get to see a dream of mine play out for real on the neatly mowed grass of Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. The dream was not mine alone, but was shared with the folks who worked alongside me on the seventh floor of the Metromedia Building in Secaucus back in the spring of 1996.
We were the original front office of the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. I was the public relations director, and most of my colleagues in the media thought I was crazy to leave my job as a sportswriter for the New York Daily News to work for a new team in a new league, Major League Soccer. "It will fold inside two years," was what I heard the most. I had no real response.
But there was this dream. And, like I said, on Thursday night it will play out. The New York Red Bulls, the team formerly known as the MetroStars, host the San Jose Earthquakes in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. New York holds a 1-0 lead in the two-game, total-goals series after winning the road leg Saturday night in San Jose.
A win or a tie Thursday, and the Red Bulls advance. A win or a tie, and the Red Bulls get to host the Eastern Conference finals. A win or a tie, and the Red Bulls get a chance to show the New York/New Jersey market, the toughest soccer market to crack in the country, just how far they've come since I sat in a cubicle (next to the team's first coach, Eddie Firmani) typing news releases that always began with "The MetroStars of Major League Soccer" and always ended with a paragraph explaining "Major League Soccer is a 10-team professional league" and that the MetroStars played their home games in Giants Stadium. And then the phone number, 888-4METROTIX.
Those of us on the seventh floor believed there would come a day when the MetroStars would have their own stadium, when great players would want to come play for the club, when our team would host big winner-take-all contests before wild supporters.
And that's what we've got Thursday night. The Red Bulls were the best team in the East this season. They probably will not have their biggest-name star, French striker Thierry Henry, as he recovers from a knee injury that's caused him to miss the past three matches. But there's still plenty of international talent, with Mexican star Rafa Marquez, Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel, Estonian playmaker Joel Lindpere, Jamaican speedster Dane Richards and Senegalese goalkeeper Bouna Condoul. They also have a future U.S. national team defender in Tim Ream, among other good youngsters.
In short, they're heavy favorites to take care of San Jose. And, what's more, they are playing in what is -- hands down -- the best soccer stadium ever built in this country. In fact, having traveled all over the world to see games, I can tell you that for a venue this size (capacity 25,189), it's as nice as any stadium I've been to. There is not a bad seat in the house. And all the seats are covered by a roof that keeps the noise inside. It's accessible by train. You can stop in any number of restaurants and bars in Newark's Ironbound, eat and talk the game with die-hards, before making your way across the bridge with them for the game. It's a real soccer experience the whole way.
I'm telling you, that was our dream. We even had stadium drawings and the exact spot in Harrison pegged as Plan A. It just took different folks -- different owners, in particular -- to make it a reality. The original franchise owners, the Metromedia Company, thought we could make it at Giants Stadium. That was naive. The next owners, the Anschutz Entertainment Group, always seemed more like caretakers. It took the folks at Red Bull, the very same Austrians who figured out how to sell a nasty-tasting, highly caffeinated drink to the world, to give this club a lift.
Unlike prior owners, Red Bull was willing to throw caution to the wind, to spend money, all with the hope that New Yorkers would come out to watch the stars. These folks scrapped the original stadium plan for something bigger and better, to the tune of $180 million. They swooped when the league introduced a new "designated player" policy (aka the Beckham Rule), and brought in Angel, then Henry and then Marquez. It was a statement, big time.
The only thing the old MetroStars did better than the rest of MLS was change coaches. During my two years with the club, we had three (Firmani, Carlos Queiroz and Carlos Alberto Parreira), and a fourth (Alfonso Mondelo, who didn't last a full season) was on the way. The MetroStars' idea of a big signing was an aging German star, Lothar Matthaeus, which prompted German daily Bild to dub the club "the worst team in the world." The team, led by a youngster named Clint Mathis, did have a nice run to the Eastern finals in 2000, and just two years ago, it got every bounce imaginable in the playoffs and found itself in its first MLS Cup final, only to lose 3-1 to the Columbus Crew.
But Thursday night means even more than that. At practice last week, coach Hans Backe -- a Swede with a quick wit -- tried to downplay the importance of the playoffs, saying the team's 51-point regular season was proof of the work that's been done in his first year in charge and that the goal would be to build on that, regardless of what happens in these playoffs. He's right, but we all know New York relishess what fans and sports radio guys like to call "the big spot." That's what we've got now.
A win or a tie Thursday night, and the Red Bulls will get to play host to a conference final match -- ideally on Saturday night, Nov. 14, because the fans deserve a Saturday match after being dealt the Thursday semi -- that should sell out and truly put the Red Bulls on the map. These matches are the biggest in the club's 15 years.
I should know, because I've lived through them all. In fact, last week before running out to Red Bulls practice, I asked the MetroStars' first captain, current Kansas City Wizards coach Peter Vermes, to reminisce about the first playoff game in club history, back in the inaugural season of 1996. It was Game 1 of a best-of-three with DC United. It was pouring rain, as it always seemed to do back in those days with the MetroStars. The lovely grass field we had installed over the artificial turf at Giants Stadium had been pulled up so the Giants and Jets could have their fake field back.
What was a pristine playing surface when we began the season was now pavement-hard plastic, with all the football markings there to confuse. We'd started Year 1 playing in front of huge crowds, sometimes as big as 30,000 to 40,000 people, but now we were playing in front of a handful of hard-cores. The game ended in a 2-2 draw, which, back in those days, meant an MLS shootout. Vermes, who had been hobbled by a shin injury late in the game and did not want to participate in the tiebreaker, had no choice but to shoot when the contest went to each team's 11th shooter. Limping like Kirk Gibson in the 1988 World Series, Vermes chipped his shot over DC keeper Jeff Causey to give the Metros the win.
"We thought we were in control of that series," Vermes said. "But we had to go down to DC and play two games at RFK, and they beat us twice and ended up going on to win the first two MLS Cups and three of the first four."
As for the New York team? All we could do was dream.
But 15 years later, it seems it was worth the wait.
Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.