Major League Soccer has seen a litany of different rule changes throughout its 23 seasons. From shootouts after any draw to the constant tinkering of the playoff format, things can always change in a significant way quite quickly. For Bob Bradley and the MetroStars in the summer of 2003, they helped to eliminate one particular rule immediately with the clever use of a substitution.
‘Cheatin’ Bob’ Bradley and one very quirky MLS rule
On a sweltering July afternoon, the MetroStars traveled down to RFK Stadium to face D.C. United. This was the first campaign for Bradley with the MetroStars, joining after a successful stint with the Chicago Fire. The New Jersey native led the franchise into the 2003 postseason, as well as that year’s U.S. Open Cup final. Although, that day in the nation’s capital would become as noteworthy as any other achievement in terms of notoriety.
D.C. opened the scoring early, grabbing a 1-0 advantage through a penalty kick converted by Marco Etcheverry. Metro would equalize only a few minutes later after an excellent strike from Jaime Moreno. The Bolivian legend was not the only player that day seemingly on the wrong side of the field, as defender Mike Petke was with United for this anything-but-ordinary match.
Future USMNT midfielder Ricardo Clark gave New York a 2-1 lead, after a remarkable piece of individual skill on the ball. D.C. would level it back up at 2-2. Ben Olsen found Dema Kovalenko in the penalty area, and he was able to beat goalkeeper Tim Howard with an accurate shot.
The game ended in a 2-2 draw, with MLS rules sending the match into overtime. The encounter was at a precarious point, as the summer heat was certainly taking a toll on the players. Bradley felt that he needed to get creative, and that’s what he did with the league’s substitution rule that was in place at the time.
MLS allowed a total of four substitutes per match for a team. This would consist of three field players, and one only able to be used for a goalkeeper. Having already made his three subs, Bradley found a loophole that would ultimately afford the MetroStars a significant edge over United.
Howard switched shirts and positions with midfielder Mark Lisi. Once the ball was out of play, 16-year-old rookie Eddie Gaven was brought on for Lisi in goal. Gaven became the youngest player in club history, and the youngest player to score a goal in club history, a month prior to the match at D.C. United.
When the opportunity appeared again for New York, Gaven swapped positions (and gear) with Howard.
It was not the first time this had taken place, with similar incidents involving Kansas City and Dallas happening before the game at RFK. However, on this afternoon, it would make all the difference. The MetroStars were down a man from an earlier red card, but the fresh legs of Gaven in the opposing half would deliver three points.
An excellent pass from Amado Guevara sent the youngster speeding towards the United goal, and he netted the game-winner in the 99th minute.
Speaking to The Washington Times following the match, Bradley spoke of the league rules and the need to adapt. “Those are the rules in our league. You have the opportunity to use the extra sub if that’s how you do it. When you’re playing a man down in this heat, in the afternoon, you look after your players. That to me is the most important part of the spirit of the game.”
This gave birth to the “Cheatin’ Bob” nickname from D.C. supporters, and added another fascinating chapter to the Atlantic Cup rivalry. The goalkeeper-only substitution rule was rescinded by the league the following season.
It is certainly one of the more memorable moments during Bradley’s tenure with the MetroStars, one that would end following the 2005 season. He spent a year with Chivas USA in 2006, before taking over the US national team. Bradley would guide the Stars and Stripes to victory at the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup and a runners-up spot at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup.
Now leading expansion side Los Angeles Football Club, Bradley has his sights set once again on lifting silverware. With talent such as Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi starring on the front-line, LAFC are a legitimate MLS Cup contender in the Western Conference in only their first year.
Eddie Gaven moved to Columbus Crew SC in 2006, and would go on to make more than 200 appearances for his new team. In an ironic twist of fate for Red Bulls fans, he started in the midfield for Columbus in the 2008 MLS Cup final, a 3-1 win against New York.
Tim Howard would soon depart for the English Premier League with Manchester United, before moving on to Everton. At Goodison Park, he would enjoy a stellar career, while also being the starting goalkeeper for the United States at both the 2010 and 2014 FIFA World Cups.
During a recent ESPN broadcast, commentator Taylor Twellman mentioned the idea of having an extra substitution in the event of a possible head injury. This was during a recent match between New York and D.C. United, as Kemar Lawrence was receiving treatment after a collision. While the intentions are definitely worth discussing, one can’t help but think back to Bradley’s decision with the MetroStars in 2003 in terms of how it could be exploited.
Suddenly, the thought of a player faking a head injury to gain another substitute for their team makes a referee’s job even more difficult. It would be an impossible task to determine the validity of those claims on the spot, and the rule would unfortunately be ripe for misuse. MLS is always looking to improve their product, but more substitutions would likely not be the best direction.
Bob Bradley oversaw three productive seasons with the MetroStars, as the club qualified for the playoffs in each of his campaigns. There were plenty of special moments that stood out during that time, with a shrewd move against D.C. United becoming one that rival supporters will not soon forget.