|Clint Mathis, the face of the franchise, was left off the |
lineup sheet. (Courtesy BigAppleSoccer.com)
Wednesday night was a very important milestone in MLS history. It was the 10th anniversary of my first MLS game as an employee! (The game was on June 26, 2002, but I felt a Wednesday was more appropriate to celebrate the anniversary.) That’s right, 10 years ago, on a Wednesday night in the Meadowlands, I was a communications intern for the MetroStars after my freshman year of college. I saw the MetroStars lose (surprise!); Pablo Mastroeni get a red card (big surprise!); and sat through an international game designed to draw additional fans (it didn’t). Thus began my career in sports.
Perhaps more memorably for everybody else, Wednesday night was the 10th anniversary of the infamous game in which Clint Mathis was supposed to make his return to MLS following the World Cup, but was denied entry as a second-half sub because (wait for it …) he had been omitted from the team’s lineup sheet. It was an extremely high-profile blunder that hurt the MetroStars’ chances to win the game and cost an assistant coach his job. And I could have stopped it.
Read on for the full story …
Don’t worry, I wasn’t in charge of writing out or delivering the lineup sheet, but I was somewhat aware of the situation. You see, my job on my first game day with the MetroStars was that of a TV spotter. I was assigned to sit in the broadcast booth next to JP Dellacamera and basically do whatever he asked. In this case, all he really wanted was for me to keep track of corner kicks. As an aspiring broadcaster and somebody who basically fell in love with soccer because of a game that JP called (the 1999 UEFA Champions League final), this was a perfect gig.
My first task was to track down the lineups. MLS lineups are submitted on a handwritten, triplicate sheet from each team, containing a hastily and often semi-legibly written lineup including numbers and names of both starters and subs. A coach signs at the bottom. These forms get turned into a print-out from the Elias system used to track the game, and the print-out is widely distributed and pretty much considered the official line-up sheet.
In many stadiums, media members only see the printed version, but since the television broadcasts need lineups right away, copies of the hand-written sheets were delivered first on this night. Scanning the MetroStars’ list, I saw the normal lineup: Tim Howard, Craig Ziadie, Steve Jolley, Mike Petke, Ted Chronopoulos, Jeff Moore, Ross Paule, Tab Ramos, Andy Williams, Mamadou Diallo, and Rodrigo Faria.
Paul Grafer (his pants were famous in MetroLand) and (then-rookie) Brad Davis were among the names on the bench, but there was no Mathis, and there was a blank space at the bottom of the substitutes’ list. I found this a little weird, especially since Mathis – then a high-profile face of the team and league and fresh off a Sports Illustrated cover – was supposed to be making his return. But by the time JP and color analyst Shep Messing got back from whatever they were doing, the printed lineups had been distributed, and Mathis was listed on the substitutes’ bench. An intern in my first game, I just assumed the mistake had been corrected. I dropped the copies of the hand-written lineups under the desk, and I didn’t give it another thought.
But in the second half, after I had kept careful count of maybe 10 corner kicks and relayed their total to JP, Mathis pulled on a jersey and walked to the halfway line with a blue substitutes’ card. After a delay, the fourth official and MetroStars coaches engaged in a long discussion, and Mathis eventually retreated to the bench.
It dawned on me that I might be the only person in the entire stadium who knew the reason why! (An overstatement, to be sure, but I was an intern in my first game. Forgive me some delusions of grandeur.) I quickly dug up the copies of the hand-written lineups and tried to show JP what had happened. I think it took a little while to convince him that I had branched out beyond corner kicks, but as soon as he got the point, he relayed it to the television audience, and the word was out.
Chris Carrieri went on to score the game-winning goal in the 88th minute for the Rapids, even though they were down to 10 men, and it was one of many miserable nights in MetroStars history. Head coach Octavio Zambrano publicly took the blame, saying the lineup was his responsibility, yet assistant coach Richard Williams (no relation to Richie) resigned two days later, accepting a demotion to a role in the MetroStars’ youth academy.
It was a mistake nobody could believe, and it was an introduction to professional sports that I will never forget.