The pressure was going to be on whatever team was born in New York in 1996, Major League Soccer’s inaugural year. It didn’t matter what they were called or what the shirts looked like, or even who lined up in the side or sat on the hot end of the bench – because the Big Apple expects success. A city with residents from every country on earth, NYC has a long and special relationship with American soccer. It’s produced more U.S. Open Cup Champions than any other place, and their last top-flight professional team was the Cosmos, a name known the world over for winning, entertaining and revolutionizing.
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The rest of the story, at least the broad strokes of it, is well known. The MetroStars started on a bumpy road. They drew big crowds to Giants Stadium in their first year, but nowhere near the throngs who came out to watch Pele and Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia on that same turf twenty years prior. Before long, attendances fell off and the expected trophies never came. Success eluded. A revolving door of sporting directors, high-profile coaches and designated players began to spin. All the while, the section of the trophy cabinet reserved for the Metros remained bare.
(German World Cup winner Lothar Matthaus was one in a long list of superstars that failed to bring silverware to NY)
Players, all players, will tell it to you straight. Trophies are what matter. A nice stadium, good crowds, entertaining soccer – these are all nice things, but they’re footnotes in sports’ simplest and oldest story. “It’s no secret that we haven’t won a Final before,” said Sacha Kljestan, captain of the New York Red Bulls (the team re-branded in 2006 amid consternation from fans who’d taken the Metros to their hearts despite their lack of success). “We’re obviously not where we want to be as a club in terms of titles. But this Open Cup is a chance to win a trophy and that would be big, because we set reaching the Final of the Open Cup as one of our preseason goals this year.”
What Once was Metro Now is Red Bull
The club’s best years came after they changed names, ownership and identity. They were MLS runners-up in 2008 and won the Eastern Conference in 2010, ‘13 and ‘15. A pair of Supporters' Shields in 2013 and ’15 – given to the team with the best regular-season record – is their only silverware, and not the kind you want hanging alone in the rafters.
“Winning trophies is a benchmark of any team, and if you look at your full trophy cabinets at the Barcelonas and Manchester Uniteds and Real Madrids of the world, it tells its own story,” said Jeff Agoos, former MLS Defender of the Year who lined up for the MetroStars as a player and won the Open Cup with D.C. United. “New York has come close many times, but they haven’t been able to break through that ceiling that pushes you on to bigger things. After that, expectations change fast. But you have to break through first.”
(U.S. National Team standout Jeff Agoos during a stint with the Metros)
Another club alumnus agrees. “It’s the most important thing for any club at any level to win something. A Cup or a League title. It doesn’t matter, but you have to win something,” said Giovanni Savarese, the former Venezuela striker who banged in goals for the Metros in three seasons between 1996 and 1998. “It can build up and be a problem psychologically if you come very close over and over and then you don’t win. Expectations and hope can build and the players can become overwhelmed by it.”
“A winning mentality is important, and that only comes from winning trophies. Championships,” added Jaime Moreno, who began his MLS career, like Agoos, with the league’s first dynasty, winning four titles and two Open Cups at D.C. United. Then, in 2003, the Bolivian – one of MLS’s best-ever scorers – spent a season with the struggling MetroStars. “In D.C. we had that mentality. We had a team built to win from top to bottom. But in New York I noticed it was different and you can’t make excuses. Only winning makes winners.”
(Current NYRB captain Sacha Kljestan salutes traveling fans after the 2017 Open Cup Semifinal in Cincinnati)
You can call it a culture of expectation or you can call it a culture of failure. You’ll hear it put a lot of different ways from former and current players, fans and pundits. But it doesn’t matter what you call it. Everyone knows what it is.
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‘Any Trophy is a Big Trophy’
Savarese is now head-coach and sporting director at the New York Cosmos (re-born lower down the professional soccer chain in the new NASL). He’s a New Yorker in his core, having come to the City to study and play at Long Island University nearly 30 years ago. He was head of youth development with the MetroStars/Red Bulls and his experience in the Open Cup goes all the way back to when he lined up with the Greek Americans, of semipro fame, in the fabled Cosmopolitan League.
“Any trophy is a big trophy for the Red Bulls at this point,” said Savarese, who scored nearly a goal every other game during his time as a MetroStar. “This Open Cup is huge for the players and staff. And I think they have what they need to win.”
(Gionanni Savarese, a Metro legend, running the line for NASL's NY Cosmos)
Good will and nostalgia aside, New York Red Bulls will be underdogs in the Final. They’re up against Sporting Kansas City, a team who’ve won an MLS Cup and two Open Cups in the last five years, and are taking aim at a fourth overall Cup crown. They’re also playing in Kansas City, at the noisy and intimidating Children’s Mercy Park. If you measure the histories of the two clubs, one has a lot and the other has a little. But history counts for only so much, as KC coach Peter Vermes, who played alongside Savarese for the Metros in 1996, told ussoccer.com “There’s no such thing as curses,” he said. “And what happened, or didn’t, in the past doesn’t have any real effect on the future.” Easy to say with two league titles and three Open Cups to his name as a player and a coach.
Expectation, Hope Springs Eternal
The thing about expectation is that it’s inexhaustible. Just like hope. And anyone who’s watched the New York Red Bulls’ U.S. Open Cup campaign this year will notice the same things. They’ve been sensational at times, practical at others and gritty and full of fight consistently.
(The old MetroStars with Savarese (lower right) & Peter Vermes (upper right))
“The New England game was a real test for us and we knew it was going to be,” said Kljestan of the Quarterfinal on rough turf at Harvard Stadium, where NYRB saw off their old rivals late in a game that was more blood and thunder than sunshine and lollipops. “After that game we could start to taste it, to feel like maybe we were onto something good this year.”
Bradley Wright-Phillips has scored three goals in this Open Cup so far, including a brace in a heart-breaking extra-time Semifinal win away against USL Cinderellas FC Cincinnati. These 2017 Red Bulls have precious little in common with the MetroStars of yore who made a habit of getting only so far before blowing it. They have a new stadium, a new approach and a more balanced team. And those expectations, always there, are a little different now. “We’ve really been pushing ourselves in this competition and giving it a real go,” said Kljestan, captain and leader, a man who knows just how much the Cup would mean back home. It’s no longer a matter of if New York will win silverware, but when. And for the long expecting fans in and around the Big Apple, September 20, 2017 has a nice ring to it.