WORDS: CHRIS NEE
After establishing himself as one of the all-time great playmakers with Bayern Munich, Inter and the German national team, Lothar Matthäus arrived in New York to much fanfare in 2000, but he departed under the radar a few months later after just 16 largely forgettable games for the MetroStars…
The town of Herzogenaurach in Bavaria is known for its lasting influence on the world of football.
Located a half-hour drive from Nuremberg in Middle Franconia and previously the home of a Luftwaffe training base, Herzogenaurach is now more peacefully associated with the development of football boots.
The picturesque town has three stripes running right through its very core; adidas and Puma still call it home, and the former in particular has its identity threaded through the landscapes and landmarks of Mittelfranken’s unlikely business powerhouse.
Germany’s most capped footballer, Lothar Matthäus, was born in nearby Erlangen and completed his football education in the youth ranks at 1. FC Herzogenaurach. 46 years after Adi Dassler’s screw-in studs became part of the lore of the Miracle of Bern and West Germany’s first FIFA World Cup win, Matthäus captained them to their third. He played 150 times for West Germany and Germany, including a record 25 World Cup finals matches across five tournaments between 1982 and 1998.
He won eight domestic titles, seven in Germany with Bayern Munich and a scudetto with Internazionale, and in the early 1990s was named as both European Footballer of the Year and the first-ever FIFA World Player of the Year.
Matthäus was, by any measure, a great. He was a towering presence of the European game, the embodiment of the inferiority inspired in the rest of us by the merest whiff of German opposition.
After storied spells with Borussia Mönchengladbach and twice Bayern – with Inter in between – the elegant, robust and swaggering midfielder made his last switch as a player before moving into coaching with SK Rapid Wien. In August 1999, Major League Soccer’s MetroStars confirmed that 38-year-old Matthäus would be joining them in New Jersey for the 2000 season, their fifth since competing as founder members.
Their coach, former United States boss Bora Milutinović, was full of praise for a signing that had counter-productively resulted in the MetroStars making way for the German’s arrival in 1999 and posting a terrible return for the season. They finished bottom of the Eastern Conference and won five fewer points than their Western Conference equivalents in Kansas City.
A year on, Milutinović’s replacement celebrated first place in the East in a new look league that now had three shortened divisions and no penalty shoot-outs. But while Octavio Zambrano’s MetroStars had turned their fortunes around (before falling short in the playoffs), Matthäus’ 16 appearances that season are not remembered particularly fondly, especially when you consider how successful another big European name, Roberto Donadoni, had been during his inaugural campaign.
At the time of Ivan Gazidis’ league announcement that Matthäus would be a MetroStar, midfielder Miles Joseph announced that, “Lothar will be another case like Roberto.” Sadly for Joseph, and the club at which he shared his final season with the legendary German, he couldn’t have been further from the mark.
Once Zambrano had met with him to keep the transfer intact following Milutinović’s departure, Matthäus was said to have settled in well in his early days in New York, his English improving quickly and his 39th birthday passing without, he said, any dulling effect on his determination to succeed on the field and embrace new experiences of it.
But words are cheap. Journalist and author Beau Dure later wrote that, “it often seemed he only played when convenient.” It was a reference to a criticism that would also, briefly at least, be leveled at David Beckham during the early part of his time at LA Galaxy. Although he was a respected and even popular team-mate, Matthäus inevitably faced injury problems and missed large periods of his only MLS season.
On one occasion, reported Dure, he was discovered by a disappointed MetroStars staff member recovering from one of his injuries in the down-tempo environs of St Tropez. In his own way, Matthäus proved to be something of a throwback to the worst overseas signings of the defunct North American Soccer League. Like MLS, the original NASL attracted many committed and effective players from abroad, but it also gained a reputation as a lucrative place for world-class players to cruise towards retirement, sometimes with less than satisfactory consequences.
The former Bayern man had come a long way from his Franconian roots by the time he headed for MLS. After winning the World Cup in 1990 he played at USA ’94 and, following in the footsteps of fellow tournament alumnus Carlos Valderrama, he and Hristo Stoichkov returned to play their club football in the States in 2000.
Had it not been for DC United playmaker Marco Etcheverry’s suspension, the pair would have been reunited in the German’s first home game in MLS. Almost six years previously their clash at Soldier Field in Chicago, initiated by Matthäus, resulted in a red card for the Bolivian, whose retaliation signalled an abrupt end to his part in the nation’s first World Cup finals appearance for forty years.
Matthäus was a phenomenal player in his lengthy pomp. He used the ball brilliantly, mastering it like only a few have managed before or since. More importantly he made an historical impact on the world game, establishing himself as a player for the ages and one of the all-time greats from one of football’s proudest nations.
In Major League Soccer, however, he made no impact at all. Zambrano’s MetroStars enjoyed moderate success while he was on the books but he played such a minimal part that it is reflected upon now as negligible by comparison with Clint Mathis, Alex Comas and Adolfo Valencia, whose son is currently on loan in Argentina from MLS side Portland Timbers.