MLS playoffs start with MetroStars, but without three-time champs

Thursday, September 14th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The Associated Press

The worst team of 1999 rebounded to make Major League Soccer's playoffs this year. Last season's champion will be watching instead of playing.

``Our aim was to restore credibility to the club,'' MetroStars coach Octavio Zambrano said after his team rebounded from a 7-25 season to become one of the league's best at 17-12-3.

``It was really a daunting task. We were faced with a group of players that needed a different philosophy and also to get past the dismal seasons.''

D.C. United, which won the MLS Cup in 1996, '97 and '99, failed to make the playoffs after going 8-18-6, a record better than only San Jose (7-17-8).

``We have to think like a champion,'' United forward Marco Etcheverry said. ``This year, we didn't do that. It was very sad, very disappointing. Next year will be different.''

The playoffs begin Thursday night with Los Angeles (14-10-8) at Tampa Bay (16-12-4).

Friday's schedule has Dallas (14-14-4) at New York/New Jersey, and New England (13-13-6) at Chicago, with Colorado (13-15-4) at Kansas City (16-7-9) on Saturday night.

First-round series are best-of-3, and the series winners advance to a best-of-3 semifinals. The winners meet Oct. 15 at Washington in the MLS Cup.

Kansas City and Chicago each finished with 57 points, tying for the most in the league, and the Wizards were made the top seed for the playoffs because of better goal differential (plus-18 to plus-14).

But while the Fire were 7-1-2 in their final 10 games, the Wizards skidded to a 4-2-4 finish.

``We got off to a scintillating start,'' Kansas City coach Bob Gansler said. ``We fought through some adversity just like anyone else, in terms of injuries and sharpness. We got it back on track the last 10 games or so. We've met our objectives, which were to make the playoffs and be playing well when we get there. We are getting healthy and that is important. We've had four hard games against Colorado and expect no less coming up.''

New England is in the playoffs for the first time since 1997. It faces a Fire team led by Razov and Hristo Stoitchkov, who led Bulgaria to the World Cup semifinals in 1994 but has slowed at age 34.

``I remember how awesome, how explosive he was,'' said New England forward Eric Wynalda, a former star for the U.S. team.

``He is extremely volatile and I love that. One time, he was (feuding) with the Barcelona president. And he scored a goal and ran over to where the president was sitting to yell something at him, and all his teammates chased after him trying to put their hands over his mouth.''

Dallas heads into the playoffs wondering about Jason Kreis, last season's league MVP. Kreis scored 11 goals, but none in seven games since Aug. 2.

``It did concern me a few games back, but it was more so that I wasn't playing well than I wasn't scoring,'' he said. ``But I've put a few good games together and I feel that if given the opportunity, I can put the ball away.''

Los Angeles, which lost 2-0 to United in the 1999 final, dropped its last two regular-season games.

``People have to show their pride because I get pretty disappointed about losing games,'' Galaxy goalkeeper Kevin Hartman said. ``It seems people are looking toward the future, the future, the future. And as a professional, you have to come out and perform every day. We haven't had that.''

No matter what happens in the playoffs, the MLS plans changes for next year. After watching average regular-season attendance steadily slide from 17,406 in 1996's inaugural season to 13,756 this season, the league announced Monday that teams will play 28 games next year, down from 32.

``We believe by reducing the schedule by two home games per team that we can promote the games better,'' MLS executive vice president Ivan Gazidis said. ``We believe that each of our games will be more significant.''