Another chapter has been added to the Lothar Matthaeus saga. Following a three-hour meeting on Friday afternoon, the MetroStars announced that Matthaeus will stay with the team for the remainder of the season and will return to the team s training sessions on Wednesday.
"Lothar Matthaeus is staying here with the MetroStars," said MetroStars general manager Nick Sakiewicz. "He will be re-joining the club on Wednesday morning for practice at Kean. He has a back injury and is gonna need some time to slowly integrate himself back into our line-up."
"I spoke to the coach and with MLS for three long hours," said Matthaeus. "It was a long appointment. And I think we can go a good way together in the next three months. Now I have a problem with my back but I think I can start training with the team next week. We have a game next Tuesday in the Cup (Open Cup) on Long Island against Tampa and after this game I will go to training with the team. I hope at the All-Star game I can play a half and when I'm ready I'll make every effort for a comeback."
The latest chapter in this saga began shortly after Matthaeus returned from Euro 2000. In his first game back, on June 28th, he injured his back when he used a bicycle kick to clear the ball from the MetroStars defensive end. With the club's permission, he sought medical treatment for the injury in Germany but the next day was photographed relaxing at the beach in St. Tropez with his girlfriend.
The photograph, published on the front page of the German newspaper, Bild, caused many to question Matthaeus' commitment to the MetroStars and led to speculation that his days in MLS were numbered. Following his return to New York, a series of meetings were scheduled between Matthaeus, his agent, MetroStars general manager Nick Sakiewicz, coach Octavio Zambrano, MLS Commissioner Don Garber, and Executive Vice President of Player Relations Ivan Gazidis, culminating in Friday's announcement.
The meetings were designed to allow all sides to express their views and concerns and expectations if the relationship was to continue. "We expressed our point of view in our meeting and so did Lothar," said Zambrano. But this meeting was to get past that and get to the next level of conversation and I'm happy to say that that's not going to be the case (letting Lothar go)."
Of paramount importance to the MetroStars were Matthaeus' commitment to the team and the status of his back injury. "For me the critical issues were the back injury, the potential for him to rejoin the team and to play at 110 percent, and the same Lothar that I went to visit in Spain, I wanted back on the team," said Sakiewicz. I think the coach feels the same way and so the critical issue, I think, is the injury and the ability to get back on the team."
"We are all committed to taking this team as far as it can go and Lothar's commitment is there and that's how much we got from this meeting, and therefore I don't envision any problems that are going to get in the way of getting there," said Zambrano.
Matthaeus himself pledged his commitment to the team. "Yes, I am happy, he said. This coach waited for me and I hope I can give back my best effort. I'll come into training and give my best and I hope the team has the same respect as four months ago."
Prior to Friday s announcement, it was suggested that the MetroStars would simply release Matthaeus, but Sakiewicz denied that was an option. "The decision about his future was really up to him," said Sakiewicz. "When it concerns players of great talent and skill we don't do stupid things. So releasing Lothar Matthaeus without getting any kind of return for it would not be a smart thing and we don't do those stupid things."
Now that the disputes have been resolved, the first order of business is to get Matthaeus healthy again so that he can play. "He's been under the care of one of the most respected doctors in all of Europe and certainly it is a prerogative of the players to seek help from someone who s been his doctor for many years. We don't see that as a problem," said Zambrano. "Now that he's going to be here obviously we need to take some of that care."
To that end, the MetroStars' doctor will evaluate Matthaeus' injury early next week. "It is likely that (the doctor) will see him on Monday," said Zambrano. "But for sure when we do our regeneration session on Wednesday after the match against Tampa. We'll definitely have a meeting that will include conversations with his doctor in Germany and our doctor and to get a sense of what reality is - rehab - and try to accelerate that process."
But Zambrano will not rush to put Matthaeus back on the field until he is completely recovered. "When you are dealing with this type of injury you can't really gauge anything until you see the player on the training field, running and kicking the ball and seeing how that affects his fitness," said Zambrano. "And, so, if that proves to be a quick recovery, then great. And if not we'll have to wait until Lothar is at 100 percent, because I think that's important that he is 100 percent when he comes back."
Once Matthaeus is healthy, will he automatically regain a spot in the starting eleven? Zambrano says that is not the case. "We don't guarantee players starting positions because then we defeat the competitive environment that we are trying to create for this club." Zambrano continues, "We have an understanding with Lothar and I think that we are very clear on that and we are looking forward to working toward the championship and I don't think anything is going to get in the way of that."
Sakiewicz agrees with Zambrano. "It's the case with every player on the roster," said Sakiewicz. "It's not about the name. It's not about how much money you make. It's about how well you play. And whether it's Lothar Matthaeus or anybody on our team - they're injured, and they come back, they must earn the right to play and that's the coach's choice."
Whether or not Matthaeus secures a starting position as the MetroStars head down the stretch to the playoffs, Zambrano expects him to be an important part of the team. "We have yet to play some very important matches and when those matches come, within the locker room it is beneficial to the club to have someone like Lothar with all that he can bring to the table," said Zambrano.
"I think we have had a great run with the players and I absolutely take nothing away from them. They deserve the praise of taking us where we are right now. But we tend to look at the big picture and the big picture calls for a possible championship game down the line and with injuries, red cards, et cetera, no one can argue with me that having someone like Lothar as part of this club can be something to the detriment of the club."
Sakiewicz, for one, has already decided how the season will end, and MLS might want to think about adding some extra security to the league office in the meantime. "We think that Lothar is the type of player that can help us win a championship. The team is properly positioned through some wonderful efforts on the players' behalf and Lothar is one of those players. We're looking forward to him recovering from his back injury and entering the team at the appropriate time to lead us to the ultimate prize, which is that shiny trophy in the commissioner's office, which I was eyeing today during our meeting, and we're looking forward to winning that."