Wednesday, January 18, 2006
Off on the wrong foot
Alexi Lalas strolled onto a nondescript field turf practice pitch one hot summer day last June and addressed the MetroStars for the very first time. Sporting a gray suit and sneakers (his luggage and shoes were lost by his airline), Lalas gave his first speech as MetroStars team president. Players were visibly concerned, uncertain what the future would bring with a new man in charge.
Amado Guevara didn't like what he heard and surely didn't like what he saw. Riding back to Giants Stadium from the field that day with a reporter and a teammate, the fiery Honduran midfielder couldn't hide his contempt for his new boss. The frustration was clear in Guevara's voice as he mocked the sneakers Lalas wore and called him a joke. Guevara insisted that he was done with the MetroStars and done with Major League Soccer and that it would only be a matter of time before he left.
It should have been clear from that day forward that Lalas and Guevara would not coexist, which makes the fact that Guevara is about to be traded not much of a surprise. The MetroStars are in serious discussions with FC Dallas about acquiring Guevara for U.S. national team forward Eddie Johnson. The trade could be consummated by the end of the week and comes on the heels of Guevara's recent comments to the Honduran media that he has no desire to play for the Metros with Lalas as president.
So what went wrong with Guevara and the MetroStars? It was a rather simple series of events that led a very talented but enigmatic player to grow unhappy and a club to grow tired of dealing with a malcontent.
It all began in 2004, when Guevara joined the MetroStars from CD Motagua in Honduras. He joined a team that included Clint Mathis and Tim Howard as the club's established stars. Guevara quietly assimilated to his new club, showing incredible ability on the field while staying relatively reserved off of it. As Howard went off to Manchester United and Mathis faded away as he thought about a move to Europe, it was Guevara who slowly but surely became the team's leader on the field.
The new role suited Guevara just fine in 2004. As the unquestioned leader of an inexperienced team, Guevara flourished. He posted 10 goals and 10 assists and played some of the best soccer ever seen in MLS during a stellar run of form in the early season and midseason. He faded badly down the stretch, though -- as he had done the year before -- and disappeared in the team's playoff series loss to D.C. United. Some attributed it to fatigue from also playing for Honduras in World Cup qualifying. Despite the disappointing finish, Guevara was still content as a Metro, as the main Metro.
Things changed in 2005. In came Youri Djorkaeff, a World Cup winner and charismatic figure who was quickly embraced by his teammates and drew instant attention from the media. All of a sudden, Guevara was no longer the big fish despite having just come off an MLS MVP season. He felt slighted, which led to an uneasy first few weeks and some feeling in team circles that Guevara resented Djorkaeff's presence. Eventually, the pair found a common ground, and their relationship appeared to blossom after a game against Chicago when Djorkaeff laid off a goal-bound shot by Guevara rather than score the goal for himself.
Guevara looked primed for another dream season when Lalas' arrival shook things up. Lalas replaced Nick Sakiewicz, a favorite of Guevara's thanks in no small part to the fact that Sakiewicz treated Guevara very well. Like a child rebelling against a new stepfather, Guevara didn't mind sharing his disdain for Lalas, and matters only escalated when Lalas fired team manager Orlando Conguta, a Guevara confidant. After that, Guevara became increasingly moody and began to lash out, ripping league officials and privately complaining about his salary.
The last straw for the MetroStars likely came in the team's final game of 2005. Needing an inspired performance against New England to advance past the first round of the East playoffs, the Metros folded late and dropped a 3-1 decision that cost them the two-game series. Guevara was a ghost that night. He had no impact and disappeared for long stretches as if he had no interest in affecting the outcome. Teammates avoided any public condemnations of him, but the feeling in team circles was that Guevara had quit on his team.
Which brings us to this week. Guevara and Lalas have engaged in a war of words over Guevara's recent participation in exhibition matches with his former club, Motagua. Lalas insisted he never gave Guevara permission to play in those games, a factor that surely set Guevara off since he had been allowed to play in similar games in previous years. Comments from Lalas that Guevara was expendable and that the Metros had bent over backward to accommodate Guevara enraged a player who had spent the past seven months feeling mistreated. Guevara delivered the ultimatum that he never wants to play for the Metros again. The declaration was moot considering the team already had spent weeks trying to trade him.
Who is really to blame for a marriage that seemed to disintegrate at warp speed? The Metros have their share of the blame because they went from pampering Guevara to doing things that were always going to unsettle him. If your most talented player is a bit of an emotional guy, someone liable to go off the edge if he feels slighted, wouldn't you want to do things to make him feel wanted? This isn't to say you should spoil your players, but if you have spoiled them, you shouldn't be surprised when they revolt once the spoiling stops.
The fact is things were never going to be the same for Guevara with the Metros. This is now Mo Johnston's and Djorkaeff's team. Even if Lalas hadn't taken a few verbal jabs at Guevara, some other conflict surely would have come up during the season, especially considering the massive reconstruction of the roster that is about to take place. Johnston and Lalas have too much at stake to risk it on a player who has proved too unpredictable. The Metros are better off trading Guevara now, and Guevara is better off finding a new club to settle with.
That is where FC Dallas steps in. FCD has been looking to trade Johnson for some time, in part because the club isn't crazy about paying $875,000 to a player who will be missing a considerable amount of time on national team duty. FC Dallas can offer Guevara some appealing factors -- a nice, new stadium, warm weather and a club with some quality attacking talent. The chance to play with his close friend Carlos Ruiz and the chance to move a few thousand miles closer to his native Honduras are additional bonus points. Johnson's departure, coupled with Guevara's arrival, would set the stage for Ruiz to return and for the tandem to serve as the drawing card for Pizza Hut Park, the club's beautiful new stadium.
Wherever Guevara winds up, he is unlikely to find the comfortable setting he enjoyed during his first two seasons with the MetroStars. The sooner he realizes that, the sooner he can get back to being the player he was in 2004, when he was an MVP instead of a headache. By all accounts, he will have to go somewhere else to rediscover that form.
Metros wheeling and dealing
As if the expected departure of Guevara isn't enough in Metro Land, the MetroStars also are gearing up to trade Eddie Gaven. According to sources, Gaven appears to be the key piece in a potential trade with Columbus for forward Edson Buddle. Team officials continue to deny that Gaven is on the trading block, but league sources have confirmed that the Metros are closing in on acquiring Buddle. The trade would mark the fourth deal between the clubs since the start of the 2005 season. The Metros are eyeing a potential forward tandem of Johnson and Buddle. The two are very close, having been teammates on the U.S. Under-23 national team. Metros coach Johnston is very familiar with both after they spent a week training with the MetroStars after the 2003 season in preparation for the U-23 team's 2004 Olympic qualifying bid.
The Metros also are closing in on a deal that will send forward Ante Razov to Chivas USA for a portion of an allocation. More important than the allocation to the MetroStars is the ability to unload Razov's considerable 2006 salary, which sources say will be more than $200,000. Razov appeared destined to be reunited with former Metros coach Bob Bradley from the day Bradley was hired by Chivas USA.
Razov is from Southern California, speaks Spanish and, most important, can still score goals, something Chivas USA desperately needs after fielding one of the weakest offenses in the league last year. The move also frees up more cap room for the MetroStars, who already had freed up a considerable chunk of cap space with the departure of Argentine forward Sergio Galvan Rey. That cap room will be invaluable as the Metros begin to scout prospective players to fill their six junior international slots. One of the players set to attend next week's training stint for trialists is left midfielder Joe Keenan, who is currently a member of the Chelsea reserve team.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.