John Wolyniec (above) and Jim Rooney were released by the MetroStars (now Red Bulls) on April Fool’s Day, 1999. (Andy Mead/YCJ Photo)
By Michael Lewis
Front Row Soccer Editor
We all know what today is — April 1 — perhaps better known as April Fool’s Day.
So you better watch out for all sorts of pranks and unusual occurrences and that includes even subtle stories in the media. Heck even a website or two just might try to pass off a column or two on tactics as the actual thing. In other words, you have to be aware of people pulling one over on you.
On April 1, 2011, Toronto FC had traded Dwayne DeRosario to the Red Bulls for Dax McCarty, news that some people originally took with a grain of salt because of the first day of the fourth month. It turned out to be true.
So, you have to beware of what is reality and what is not on April 1.
When I arrived home on April 1, 1999, I found a page faxed to me from the MetroStars that they had released two players.
Some 21 years ago today, John Wolyniec and Jim Rooney discovered they had been cut by the MLS club. They certainly had pretty decent credentials. The tough, Bronx-born Rooney had toiled for the Long Island Rough Riders in soccer’s minor leagues for three years before getting an opportunity with the MetroStars in 1998.
Wolyniec? At Fordham University, the Staten Island, N.Y. native led all NCAA Division I goal-scorers for two consecutive seasons and was an All-America. Not surprisingly, he was taken in the first round of the 1999 MLS college draft — a seventh overall pick.
At that time, MetroStars head coach Bora Mulitinovic — some people might call him mad Bora Mulitinovic because of what transpired with the team that season, wanted very technical players on the team and Wolyniec and Rooney were not technical enough for him.
Now, to be fair Bora had forged an opportunity of being a successful international coach, particularly at the World Cup level, turning teams that had an iffy chance of reaching the second round or perhaps beyond into reality. He did it with Mexico in 1986, Costa Rica in 1990 the United States in 1994 and Nigeria in 1998. He also directed China in 2002, but that team did not get out of the group stage.
OK, so no one’s perfect and we found out how much in MLS.
Bora’s inability to adapt to so many rules and regulations — yes, we know some of them are ridiculous, and that’s not just a line reserved for April Fool’s Day — and he, the team and league paid dearly with one of the worst seasons by a club in the 23-year history of MLS.
Well, looking back on the events since then, the joke has to be on Bora because both those players rebounded quite well thankfully with productive playing careers and coaching careers.
Rooney, a member of the legendary 1995 Rough Riders team that won the U.S. Interregional Soccer League champions with the likes of Tony Meola, Chris Armas and Giovanni Savarese, among others, found his way to the MetroStars the year prior with former Rough Riders coach Alfonso Mondelo in charge. Rooney had a pretty decent season with the MetroStars in 1998, scoring eight goals and assisting on two others. After Mondelo was fired during the franchise’s days averaging one coach a season, Rooney found his days numbered with Bora at the helm.
Let’s put it gently: they did not see exactly eye-to-eye.
Rooney, though, tried to give Bora the benefit of the doubt.
“He coached World Cup teams,” Rooney once told me. “I thought he obviously knows something. I realized really early that this guy didn’t have a club. I don’t know how he got where he is.
“I noticed he didn’t have plans for me. I asked for a trade. He gave me a song and dance. Two weeks later, he was putting me in positions I never played before — at left fullback or left wing.”
Rooney finally confronted Milutinovic.
“I want a trade,” he told his coach again. “You continually lie to me, Listen, Bora, you don’t like me as a player and I don’t like you as a coach. I think you’re the worst coach I’ve ever seen in my life.”
On April 1, 1999, Rooney got a call from the MetroStars that he had been released. He told his brother the news.
“Right,” his brother said, “it’s April Fool’s Day.”
Like Rooney, Wolyniec certainly wasn’t laughing that day when he received the news.
“It certainly was a difficult time,” Wolyniec said, looking back at Milutinovic’s controversial decision to release him and Jim Rooney. “I did feel a bit slighted, but sometimes those moments make a difference going forward, that change your future. I don’t know who’s to say if I didn’t get cut that day that I would have played for 12 years. I don’t know.”
After absorbing shocks to their respective systems, both players moved on and up.
“Sometimes you need that moment when someone says no to give you motivation to make it clear in your mind how much you want it because someone said no,” Wolyniec said.
Wolyniec went to the Rough Riders to hone his skills. Before returning to MLS for good, he was called up in an emergency situation to play for the MetroStars, who had several injuries, during that lost season in August 1999. Five minutes after he was inserted in what turned into a 4-2 home loss to the Columbus Crew by Bora, Woly scored. That’s right he scored a goal.
To put it mildly, the media was rolling on the floor of the Giants Stadium press box with laughter. Not good enough to play for the MetroStars, indeed.
Woly eventually worked his way back to MLS and the MetroStars (now the Red Bulls) and became one of the franchise’s most valuable and beloved figures. He tallied 10 goals in 2004 and scored what many observers — including this one — to be the greatest goal in league history off Amado Guevara’s 53-yard volley in 2003.
And oh yes, Wolyniec still is the only player in club history to score a goal in an MLS Cup final — pulling off the feat in the 3-1 loss to the Columbus Crew in 2008.
Rooney? He eventually hooked up with the Miami Fusion. Ray Hudson, yes, that Ray Hudson, took over as coach and one of the most entertaining teams in MLS history was formed. Rooney did not just become a regular on the Fusion, but Hudson named him captain. The Fusion reached the 2001 MLS playoff semifinals before it was dispatched by the San Jose Earthquakes, who were led then by a certain 19-year-old named Landon Donovan.
Unfortunately, the Fusion’s original front office did a Bora-like job in the south Florida soccer community and despite its later success, could not continue and was bounced from the league Rooney was picked up by the New England Revolution in the dispersal draft and played one season with the club.
So, what exactly happened to both players after they completed their playing days?
Well, if you’re a Red Bulls supporter, you already know that Wolyniec is the head coach of Red Bulls II. Rooney was an assistant coach with the Jacksonville Armada and is head coach of Boca Raton FC in the National Premier Soccer League.
The moral of this story?
Yes, you will meet hard times in life.
“It’s probably a bit of pride, a bit of hope and a love for the game,” Wolyniec said years ago. “You have to be a proud player because things don’t always go your way.
“Each challenge that came along — and some of them seemed pretty steep at the time — I tried to take them head on and keep moving, move forward and try to get better. When you love the game so much and you sacrificed so much for it, there is more sacrifice because you have to pick up and move. I really just wanted to keep playing. At times it didn’t always seem like I was going to be able to.
“Until the door was completely shut I was going to keep working at it.”
At the time whatever has transpired might feel like disasters and the worst thing that could happen to you.
As low as you feel you can bounce back and bounce back quite high.
Take a look at what Jim Rooney and John Wolyniec accomplished as a player. Now they’re coaches.
If they allowed the worst April Fool’s scenario get to them, they might not be in the positions they are today and I might not be writing this piece about them.
And that’s no joke.