The New York Red Bulls are set for their fifth appearance in the MLS conference finals, as manager Chris Armas’ side will battle Atlanta United. They are 1-3 on previous occasions, with their trip to MLS Cup 2008 featuring a unique route through the league’s Western Conference.
Looking back, it was ironic that their first attempt at the MLS Cup final saw the club so close, yet so far from the promised land.
As close as it gets: The MetroStars and the 2000 MLS Cup Playoffs
The 2000 season was one of significant transition for the MetroStars, shaking off the bad vibes of a campaign the year before that ultimately went nowhere fast. Former USMNT coach Bora Milutinović oversaw a disastrous 1999 that ended up with the team at the bottom of the league. Octavio Zambrano replaced Multinović, and the pieces fell into place for a special run.
The headlines were made with the acquisition of former World Cup winner Lothar Matthäus, and supporters were hoping that the gifted midfielder would turn things around for the franchise. Unfortunately, that was just wishful thinking. The German international’s mind was seemingly anywhere except on the field for the MetroStars, and Matthäus did little to change results.
The early stages of the season were a struggle, but some shrewd moves from Zambrano and upper management were on the horizon that would change that.
Offseason acquisitions such as Alex Comas began to come into their own. Up front, Adolfo Valencia was showing why he was a striker who could make a difference. “El Tren” led the squad in scoring during the 2000 campaign with 21 goals across all competitions.
In April of that year, two trades brought in the defensive skills of Daniel Hernández and Steve Jolley. Along with center-back Mike Petke, the three would bring stability to the back-line and form the heartbeat of the team’s collective spirit. Then, during an MLS dispersal draft the following month, everything changed with the addition of one forward – Clint Mathis.
The Georgia native’s incredible finishing ability and skill on the ball brought new life for Zambrano’s lineup, evidenced by his remarkable five-goal performance against the Dallas Burn. By the time this group reached the postseason, they were in great form, at the top of the East and ready for the challenge ahead. Along with their solid league output, New York was also able to make the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup tournament, eventually eliminated at home 3-2 by the Miami Fusion.
New York and Chicago
The MetroStars had twice been to the playoffs before this, losing to D.C. United (1996) and the Columbus Crew (1998). The format at this point in time was a best-of-three series for each round until MLS Cup, and consecutive 2-1 victories over Dallas moved the club into the conference finals for the first time. The four goals in those two games were provided by Mathis (3) and Valencia (1).
MLS had three conferences in 2000, and New York would face the Chicago Fire of the short-lived Central Division. A defender by the name of Chris Armas was a key piece of their back-line. Jesse Marsch contributed in the midfield. Chicago and head coach Bob Bradley had won a league championship in their expansion season of 1998, and certainly presented a formidable opponent.
Hristo Stoichkov and Ante Razov led the way to a comfortable 3-0 home win versus the MetroStars. Despite the loss, Zambrano’s team responded in the best way possible.
A 2-0 win at Giants Stadium set up the decisive third match, with all to play for. Previously injured goalkeeper Mike Ammann had rushed back into the lineup for that crucial game. Soldier Field was suddenly the setting once again, and everything seemed to be going right for the hosts. Chicago took a 2-0 first-half lead, until Valencia modified the scoreline within the blink of an eye.
The Colombian forward netted two goals within four minutes to level the match, still at 2-2 heading into the final minutes.
Valencia seemingly had his hat trick in the 63rd minute, only to see the goal judged offside. The call was questionable at best. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, as extra-time seemed guaranteed, Razov scored the winner in the 88th minute to send the Fire to MLS Cup. On a different day, on a different field, the MetroStars may have been the ones facing Kansas City in the title game instead.
They would taste victory at the same stage eight years later, surprisingly downing Real Salt Lake. This decade has had the Red Bulls achingly close twice as well, with only one goal separating them from New England (2014) and Columbus (2015) in the conference finals each time. Now against Atlanta, they have themselves yet another golden opportunity.
The MetroStars turned things around quite quickly in 2000, as a new manager and new players made the difference in their march towards the postseason. With a current group that has been seemingly building up to this big moment, New York fans will be anxious to see what the next chapter brings. But at least one lesson from the team that fell in the Windy City should be clear. We do not know when these types of chances will arrive, so you’d better make the most of it.