Octavio Zambrano transformed the MetroStars from losers to winners.

This story was posted on BigAppleSoccer.com on Feb. 24, 2010

By Michael Lewis
BigAppleSoccer.com Editor

It’s not easy rebuilding sports teams at the bottom of the heap, and that goes for soccer.

When he took over a 1999 MetroStars team that finished with a laughable 7-25 record and only 15 points, Octavio Zambrano realized he had his work cut out for him.

Yet, the Ecuadorian native wasn’t deterred by the enormous task.

“I was not daunted by the task at all,” Zambrano said in a recent interview. “I knew I would get it done. Not to sound arrogant, I knew we were going to do a lot better than the previous team.

“I basically cleaned house. That was something that needed to be done.”

That included the staff as well, replacing the fitness trainer and team doctor as well. One of those new faces brought in is a familiar name to Red Bulls supporters — Juan Carlos Osorio, who was the conditioning coach.

“You have to give a little bit of shock treatment,” Zambrano said. “Cleaning the house was the first one. I had to start with a clean slate that signaled to the guys the new coach is not the old was. It’s going to be a new environment.”

The right attitude

So, having the correct attitude was most important.

Zambrano’s calling card has been attacking soccer — his 1998 Los Angeles Galaxy team set a league record by scoring 85 goals, demolishing the mark of 70 scored by D.C. United.

“From now on, I told the guys we were always going to attack from the beginning,” he said. “This idea always works because it puts on the team on one set mind, that we’re going to win.

“It was a clear message. We’re not going to sit back. We’re going to go after the league. We’re not going to be the laughing stock of the league. We are going all the way forward.”

Of course, to accomplish that, you need players, talented players who could go on the attack and produce.

“When I got there, I had an agenda that was very clear,” Zambano said. “I knew going in a lot of guys on the roster were not able to play the kind of football I would play.”

Essentially, he broke the roster into three groups — players who were not being retained, others who were definitely coming back and a third in which players were on the bubble.

Right from the start, Zambrano held individual meetings with every player.

“Not that I wanted to make them feel comfortable,” Zambrano said of the players who definitely were coming back, “but I wanted to solidify the team.”

Rebuilding the team

While he put out feels for former Colombian international and Bayern Munich striker Adolfo Valencia, Zambrano was scouring the MLS waiver wire and found one intriguing name — U.S. international defender Thomas Dooley, who was being let go by the Columbus Crew. Dooley recently was elected into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

“I needed someone who was just as experienced as Lothar to confer with our guy players and tell him [Matthaeus] the ways of the league,” Zambrano said. “Thomas had a very good first season until he got injured in the first game of the playoffs [dislocated shoulder].”

Zambrano’s strategy was simple: build the team down the core — central defender, central midfield and striker.

Matthaeus was supposed to join the MetroStars in 1999, but since Manchester United defeated his Bayern Munich team in the UEFA Champions League final, the five-time World Cup player decided to spend a good portion of the next season in the Bundesliga. So, Zambrano inherited Matthaeus.

He brought in several “rejects” from other teams, including defender Steve Jolley and defender-midfielder Daniel Hernandez for practically nothing. The MetroStars gave up a second round pick in the 2001 draft to L.A. for Jolley and the rights to draft-pick Daniel Alvarez to Tampa Bay for Hernandez.

“Both these players I got for virtually nothing,” Zambrano said. “I strengthened the backline with Michael [Petke] having one of his best years. I had a strong backline.”

Zambrano, now an assistant coach with the Kansas City Wizards, said that Jolley was unhappy in L.A.

“When I got him, he didn’t know what he wanted to do,” he said. “I told him: ‘This is a chance to kick-start your career.’ ”

Zambrano retained several players he wasn’t going to push out the door, including goalkeeper Mike Ammann, Petke and midfielder Tab Ramos, Mark Chung and Petter Villegas.

“I knew with Mike Ammann that he would be great,” he said.

The coach decided he was going to use a 3-5-2 formation, so he realized he would need midfielders who could run all day on the flanks. Chung (left side) and Villegas (right) fit into those roles perfectly.

“You don’t get players who are very creative and aerobic who had that capacity to go up and down the field,” Zambrano said.

Zambrano admitted that he was uncertain whether Ramos, who had been battling several injuries through the years, could be in the lineup on a regular basis.

“Tab was an enigma,” he said. “He was injured so much. I didn’t know how much I could count on him. . . . If I could get Tab to give me some solid games in the midfield, I knew we were going to get some good games.”

The final piece

The last piece of the puzzle was Clint Mathis, who literally fell into the MetroStars laps during a special dispersal draft after the Los Angeles Galaxy signed Mexican international Luis Hernandez. Mathis went on to score 13 goals and create 13 others in only 21 MetroStars matches (his fully season tally was 16 goals and 14 assists).

“It was a given I was going to take him,” Zambrano. “It was one of the best seasons Clint ever had.”

Probably one of the best seasons by any American player in MLS.

Yet, Mathis hadn’t lived up to his potential, at least not yet. “With Clint being unprotected, it was a signal for him that it was a wake-up call that he needed to do better.”

Beyond the stats, Mathis transformed the team into a viable attacking force. He certainly had his moments, connecting for a league-record five goals in a 6-4 win at the Dallas Burn.

“When you look at any successful team in MLS, usually it is one player that you need to take you to a different level,” Zambrano said. “Whether it was Carlos Ruiz with Los Angeles, Landon [Donovan] with San Jose or Peter Nowak with Chicago. It was Clint for us. I don’t think you could say it was Clint’s team more than anyone else’s.

“To use your analogy, he was the last piece of the puzzle. We had an opportunity to have something above the ordinary.”

Matthaeus vs. Valencia

While an incident was hardly in the spotlight, it came early in the season at practice when Valencia and Matthaeus argued about what Zamrbano called “an issue.”

“It started with a war of words and became harsher and harsher,” Zambrano said.

Things reached a boiling point at a team practice in Columbus, Ohio as Zambrano kicked both players — two World Cup veterans (Matthaeus captained the 1990 West Germany side to the world championship) out of practice.

‘I told them to go to the locker room and get dressed,” Zambrano said, “because they were both acting like kicks. It was a turning point for the team. The team found out there were no stars [on this club] and they were going to be treated no differently.

“That was a pivotal moment.”

Matthaeus told Zambrano that a similar incident occurred when Giovanni Trappatoni at Bayern Munich and the legendary Italian coach threw him out of practice as well.

“He said that Trappatoni was right for kicking him out of practice,” he said. “After that, he gave us what we could give us.”

Of course, Zambrano wound up in his own war of words with Matthaeus that summer after the German star was pictured on the cover of a German tabloid with his girlfriend while sun-bathing on a St. Tropez beach when he was over in Europe to get therapy for an injury.

“We had an issue with that,” Zambrano said. “I think people blew it out of proportion than what it should have been.

“I have to say this about Lothar Matthaeus. He was a great professional. When asked to perform at a position that he wasn’t used to, he was a professional. He executed what I asked him to do.”

The playoffs and disappointment

The MetroStars captured their first and only conference crown, winning the Eastern Conference with a 17-12-3. Despite missing their two top goalkeeper — Ammann was recovering from being hospitalized with injuries thanks to a collision by Tampa Bay’s Mamadou Diallo and Tim Howard was in Sydney with the U.S. Olympic team — the MetroStars swept the Burn in the quarterfinals, two games to none (both 2-1 results) — with emergency goalkeeper Paul Grafer (on loan from the Long Island Rough Riders of the A-League) in the nets.

After the MetroStars dropped the first game of the semifinal series to the Chicago Fire, 3-0, Ammann returned for the second encounter, a 2-0 win, setting up a memorable third and deciding confrontation at Soldier Field.

With the game knotted at 2-2 in the 63rd minutes, assistant referee Jorge Reyes disallowed what the MetroStars and many observers claimed was a valid goal by Valencia. Or so he thought. According to the New York Times, “Valencia, who not only appeared to be onside, but had also seen the Fire’s Jesse Marsch play the ball first, was livid at the call.” Ammann cursed the officiating and Ramos complained about the call. The MetroStars were livid after the game, which was won by the Fire, 3-2, on an Ante Razov goal in the 88th minute. “We had a clear goal taken away from us,” Ramos was quoted by The Times, “and the refereeing was awful. To lose like this was a shame.” He wasn’t the only one angry. “This is a huge problem, not just for us now, but for MLS This is supposed to be a FIFA referee, and everyone can see that he stole from us tonight,” Matthaeus told the paper. Referee Tim Weyland reportedly was escorted from the field by security guards after the final whistle.

Ten years later, Zambrano hasn’t changed his stance on the call.

“I’m convinced it was not offside,” he said. “Adolfo was in an offside position when he received the ball but was not in an offside position when it was passed. Had the right call been made, it would have been us in the final.”

Instead, the Fire went and lost to the Kansas City Wizards and former MetroStars goalkeeper Tony Meola, 2-0.

The MetroStars were never the same, whether it was under Zambrano or the seven coaches who have followed him. Mathis continued to dazzle through the 2001 season until a knee injury. He never was the same player. Injuries wore down players such as Valencia and Ramos. The MetroStars reached the playoffs in 2001, but were ousted by the Galaxy. They didn’t in 2002 and Zambrano was out the door.

Regardless, Zambrano will always have the 2000 MetroStars, a team that went from worst to first and one of the most entertaining in the 15-year history of the league.