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Op-Ed \ Wayne E. Travers, Jr

Matthaeus would do MetroStars a favor by staying in Germany.

(Sunday, June 18, 2000) -- Before their marquee player, Lothar Matthaeus, left last month for his ceremonial farewell game for Bayern Munich and to play for Germany in the current European Championship, the equation the Major League Soccer’s MetroStars hoped would add up to success was "10 (the team) plus one (Matthaeus)."

That equaled 11, but it didn't equal victory.

Now, with Matthaeus out of the country, MetroStars coach Octavio Zambrano has been forced to recalculate the formula, which now reads more like "11 times one." Same sum, but a whole different outcome -- victory.

Matthaeus' absence forced the MetroStars to become a team. Not just a Bundesliga legend plus a bunch of other guys in short pants, but a real team. Aided by shrewd trades, the MetroStars have put together a tough and flexible team and achieved four wins in five outings and a .500 record. The New Jersey side put down the Tampa Bay Mutiny, extinguished the Chicago Fire and took to the road, bringing to earth the previously streaking Los Angeles Galaxy. After a dismal loss to the Tampa Bay Mutiny, the Metros pulled into second place after dropping the Eastern Division leading New England Revolution 4-2 yesterday.

The league brought Matthaeus in from the twilight of a brilliant career in Germany to inspire and lead a team with the worst 1999 Major League Soccer record. It seemed like a good idea. After all, hadn't Italian Serie A star Roberto Donadoni attracted fans to Giants Stadium in the MetroStars' inaugural season? Why not another European sensation?

Matthaeus was fit enough to compete and provided a role model for his younger teammates. He was a leader, pure and simple. Blunt in Teutonic tradition, Mattheus would not shrink from pointing out problems on the pitch. In practice, he was a stern taskmaster, chiding teammates for missing a header on a set play or failing to strike a volley cleanly.

During games, he appeared to chafe, both at players and officials who failed, in his opinion, to see the same game he saw. Few among us see the game through the eyes of a former European and World Player of the Year. Though distinguished as a defender and called "the Beckenbauer of his generation," Matthaeus often was allowed to roam free during games, keeping the MetroStars from finding a key role for him in their lineup.

When he departed the MetroStars for Germany, Matthaeus took the hopes of many fans, and probably some of his teammates, with him. Now out from under his formidable shadow, the team seized the opportunity of Matthaeus' departure to start fresh. Management traded away players that didn't mesh or perform to standard. New talent was brought into town.

First, Zambrano shored up the defense by adding Daniel Hernandez and Steve Jolley, then reinforced the midfield with Clint Mathis and Roy Myers. These new additions have played a key role in the MetroStars' turnaround.

Matthaeus is expected to be return in July, but there are rumors that he may stay in Germany, perhaps ending his career where it started, in the Bundesliga. Even before he joined the MetroStars, Mattheus struggled with the idea of coming to the United States, fearing a new language, added responsibilities and a new culture would be too much to handle.

What the MetroStars have experienced on the field and in the standings without Matthaeus is no coincidence. His return to the MetroStars could only hurt the team he was supposed to help, throwing off a hard-built rhythm and esprit de corps. Though his skills on the pitch are still dazzling at age 38, Mattheus is not a building block for a dynasty. His thigh injury incurred recently during training for Germany's first Euro 2000 match could have happened to anyone, but with age comes an increased difficulty to recover from nagging wounds.

There is always a way to exit contractual obligations and MetroStars' management should start finding one for Matthaeus. He was brought in to help the team win, but his biggest contribution yet may be to stay away. It comes down to simple mathematics, and the formula for victory requires subtracting Matthaeus.

Wayne E. Travers, Jr., a non-soccer newspaper reporter living in Shelton, Conn., is old enough to remember fondly the North American Soccer League. He can be e-mailed at partingshots@hotmail.com.

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