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Jerry's World

Milutinovic is off to good start in making MetroStars MLS contenders.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Monday, April 5, 1999) -- Some thoughts on Major League Soccer after three weeks:

* Is Bora Milutinovic on his way to achieving a miracle in the Meadowlands? The New York/New Jersey MetroStars looked like a contender in a fine, though losing, performance Saturday against D.C. United. They controlled the ball for considerable segments, even after losing Billy Walsh to a red card midway through the second half. They also were without Tab Ramos (shin), and didn't use top offensive threat Roy Myers until the second half.

The players showed confidence -- and some of that must be stemming from Milutinovic, who late last year became the fifth coach of this troubled franchise.

He has a big decision to make - where to go with his fourth international pick, up front to pair with Eduardo Hurtado or at midfield. Mike Petke is an exciting flank defender who may be ready for full-fledged stardom.

Success for the MetroStars is key for Major League Soccer. The fan turnout so far has only been modest -- averaging 20,643 for two dates -- but more performances like the one against D.C. United should bring the Giants Stadium crowds up to the mid-20s, perhaps even high-20s, which is what MLS needs to flourish. Turning around the MetroStars would be a major milestone for Milutinovic, already in the record books for taking four teams from four different nations into the second round of the World Cup.

He was not rehired by the United States Soccer Federation in 1995 after successfully directing the Americans in the 1994 World Cup. He qualified Mexico for the 1998 World Cup in 1997 before being fired, landing with Nigeria for France '98. He does not have the talent of D.C. United and the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference, but figures to be in the playoff hunt. And don't count him out in October.

* The Los Angeles Galaxy is having serious problems scoring -- totaling just two goals in three matches, one with the opposition shorthanded. They are due in May to get striker Carlos Hermosillo (Mexico), but he wasn't overly effective in his half-season stint last year. Teams are compensating for Los Angeles' speed on the flanks, and so far the half-court offense, to borrow basketball terminology, is not working.

The Galaxy is averaging 22,189 attendance in two Rose Bowl dates. More is needed for MLS to be successful, and even that number will decrease unless L.A. starts converting some of their scoring chances.

* Let's stop hammering the Tampa Bay Mutiny for attendance woes. They are averaging 15,614 for two dates. The problem in Florida is with the Miami Fusion, who are at a miserable 9,904 after three games, and one point in the standings.

* Ante Razov is making a strong bid for further U.S. national team consideration with two-goal outbursts in three straight games, an MLS first. The Chicago Fire has been awesome in compiling a 10-2 edge in goals, but its opposition is a mere 2-6. Let's wait and see how it perform against the likes of Colorado and Los Angeles, among others. And remember, it's a 32-game season, and several key Fire players are well past 30 years of age. Razov, though, is a mere 25.

* Will Ron Newman survive the season in Kansas City? The veteran coach has presided over a team that was one of the biggest offensive forces in MLS the first two years, before faltering in 1998. The decline has continued this year, with the Wizards scoreless in three games, stretching their streak without a goal to more than six matches, 550 minutes, dating back to September 5.

"The players are feeling the pressure of not scoring," Newman said after his team hit the post three times against New England.

* Ivo Wortmann is having problems in Miami. He had to use two substitutions in the 27th minute against Chicago, inserting regular forwards Roberto Gaucho and Diego Serna in the lineup after they were benched for disciplinary reasons. "I came here to coach a professional team, not a recreational team," he said. "The players want to start doing the same things they were doing when I got here last year, coming late. Discipline is fundamental."

* Referee Rich Grady handed out a pair of yellow cards to MetroStars players for diving, falling to the ground after modest contact with D.C. United defenders.

* Most Valuable Player for the opening weeks of MLS should be New England goalkeeper Walter Zenga, who's also the coach. He's been a rock in the nets, stopping 15 shots in two games. He's also picked up a victory -- even without the likes of midfielders John Harkes, Imad Baba, and Edwin Gorter for either game, and forward Giovanni Savarese for one match. This team's improved defensive posture makes it a darkhorse in the Eastern Conference.

* Defender Mauricio Wright, a Costa Rica international, made a positive MLS debut for San Jose Clash in their shootout win against Los Angeles. "He was magic back there, and he made everyone 'round him better," coach Brian Quinn said.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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