Tuesday, October 30, 2007

MetroStars Will Gladly Practice Tuesday For A Victory Saturday


(Published in print in the United States – March 2000)

EAST RUTHERFORD, New Jersey -- It's a cold, crisp Tuesday morning at Giants Stadium. The gray clouds hang low and there's anything but the hint of spring in the air.
But for the past seven years, spring means the start of the pro soccer season. It's because of that the MetroStars train hard during an open practice session in front of the 30 or so media members gathered on the field. Their season begins at home Saturday (7:30 p.m., MSG) vs. New England and the team takes this late opportunity to iron out a few kinks.
Striker Clint Mathis, fresh off his recent appearances with the United States men's national team, exerts a commanding presence whenever he comes on the ball in this scrimmage. His thick Georgia drawl barks out orders to teammates, the majority of whom quickly return the ball to his feet.
Good decision. Mathis spends the morning launching lasers from his right foot toward the goal. Only the raw athleticism of goalkeeper Tim Howard keeps Mathis from bagging a dozen or more. Howard, unfazed by the barrage he's been facing, calls out words of encouragement to Mike Petke and his fellow defenders.
"Well done! Well done!" the keeper shouts when he's not pawing a ball away from the sticks with his gloved right hand. Petke and the rest of the backline give Howard a thumbs-up sign more than once.
An audible mix of English and Spanish rises from the field. His fellow MetroStars seem to be coaxing more effort from new Colombian striker Diego Serna, while Petke makes it a point to compliment a deft bit of dribbling by striker Rodrigo Faria.
Over on the right flank, midfielder Petter Villegas, all 5-foot-7, 140 pounds of him, makes incisive runs down the sideline before lifting a few appetizing crosses into the box for his teammates to finish.
Nobody works harder than Villegas during the training session, which comes to a close when coach Octavio Zambrano gathers the squad at the center circle for a breakdown of what he's seen.
Villegas, a Newark native, later reveals an interesting bit of information. It seems he has a tangible fear of Fire and Earthquakes. Well, not in the literal sense. But the Major League Soccer clubs from Chicago and San Jose, respectively, do concern the MetroStars player.
"Chicago is always a tough team. San Jose became a great team to watch last season," Villegas says, the sweat pouring from his forehead toward his red-and-black Nike training suit with the No. 8 stitched on.
"Los Angeles is always right there and there's us. I think it's going to be great year. Hopefully everybody's in shape and we're not going to have any injuries. We have high expectations for this year. We've got better players than we had last year. Hopefully we can take the first step forward Saturday."
Villegas applauds a tactical switch Zambrano has made for the upcoming campaign.
"We know what he wants on the field, and now that we're going to play a different formation - a 4-4-2 instead of a 3-5-2 - that's going to help the defenders," he says. "We have a good squad. I think we have the best bench we've ever had in the last six years.
"This year is going to be the most difficult year for every team because since Tampa and Miami are no longer with the league (due to contraction), all their best players went with the other teams so it's going to be a lot harder now."
Villegas and the rest of the Metros are ready to repay the faith shown in them by the 20,000 or so fans who come out to Giants Stadium for the matches.
"It's something that we've put on our minds from the beginning," he says of winning the MLS Cup. "It's been six years, and we haven't been able to even touch that final match for the trophy. Hopefully with Tab Ramos and Clint Mathis coming back (from injury) we can bring that championship here this year for New York."