Ten Years Ago: The failure of Roberto Donadoni
March 15, 2006
Don't get us wrong, we think Roberto Donadoni was a wonderful player and one of the best in not only the MetroStars', but MLS history. However, in his two seasons with the club, the Metros failed to achieve much (a preview of things to come, of course), and he departed for his beloved AC Milan after the 1997 season. But how exactly did Donadoni fail Metro?
Amid many rumors of foreign plays to join the club in its inaugural season, one came true: the league signed Italian star Roberto Donadoni on February 4th, and he was allocated to the MetroStars. He came to the league with pedigree unseen; a 10-year veteran with AC Milan, four Seria A scudettos, three Champions' Cups, a mainstay with the Italian national team that finished third and second at the 1990 and 1994 World Cups respectively. With Metro GM Charlie Stillitano trying to fashion the club into Milan West, and Donadoni's playing time with the Italian giants reduced after he turned to the wrong side of 30, Roberto seemed a perfect selection. But something interesting happened after he signed with MLS; Donadoni became an important player for Milan again, as they chased another Serie A title. So an agreement was worked out to allow him to stay in Italy until the scudetto was clinched, which it was done soon after the MLS season started.
Donadoni's Metro debut came on May 4th in the amazing Tampa Bay comeback game that will be given its own "Ten Years Ago" column later. But he left the team soon after, as he was re-called by the Italian national team for Euro 96. Roberto played well for the Azzuri, but they failed to advance to the second round. And after being given some time off after such a busy year, he came back to Metro for good in mid-July.
Donadoni had two assists in his first game back, a 3:2 win over Dallas, and then had a terrific August, scoring three goals. However, although his return revitalized the team on some level and they collected some good results, no consistency was present as the Metros failed to put together a winning streak of longer than two games. Of course, they were knocked out of the playoffs by DC, but that result was much better than what the club achieved a year later. With Donadoni on the team for the full season, great things were expected. They never came; although the maestro played in every game and scored three goals, the Metros finished last in the East and missed the playoffs. One cannot blame the supporting cast; as bad as Metro was in 1996, shuffling players in and out, the 1997 team had eight players who have or would go on to play at the World Cup. And that was it for Donadoni, as he switched red and black back to his dear Milan... and helped them to another scudetto the following season.
So why did Roberto Donadoni fail Metro? The truth is, he was always a complimentary player with both Milan and Italy, often playing on the wing and rarely in the middle of the field. When asked to move to the center for Metro, he often drifted, deferred to Tab Ramos and others, and failed to take charge when necessary. Although he was a leader on the field, Roberto was a quiet one; a classy teammate that he was did not help much when vocal direction was needed.
When one looks at early successful teams in MLS, one sees teams built around central midfielders: Tampa with Carlos Valderrama, DC with Marco Etcheverry, Kansas City with Preki, Los Angeles with Mauricio Cienfuegos. On the other hand, teams like Columbus, New England, and San Jose did not sign that special player, and failed to different extents. And of course, it will be very hard to add Metro to that first group; they clearly belong to the second.
But we do not want to belittle Roberto Donadoni. A true pioneer, the only "name" European player to join the fledging league at its start... It's just that back then, we expected more from his time with Metro. And looking back, that feeling of missed opportunity still remains.