Apple His Eye

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Successful as he was in his three years as assistant coach and then as coach of the Galaxy, there were a few things that bothered Octavio Zambrano while he was in Los Angeles.

One of them was management's insistence on trying to tailor the Major League Soccer team's roster to the demographics of the community.

In New York, or at least across the river in New Jersey, Zambrano doesn't have that problem.

"There's one big difference and that's what makes this place just fascinating," said Zambrano, whose New York/New Jersey MetroStars play the Galaxy at the Rose Bowl in tonight's Game 1 of the MLS playoffs.

"I enjoyed my time in L.A., it was great, there are a lot of things to be proud of. But certainly New York is a place where the diversity is such that the fans are not keen on seeing any particular nationality on the pitch.

"It seemed to me that during my time in L.A. that was the ownership's biggest concern--to get a Mexican player, to get a Salvadoran player. Before we [the coaching staff] brought in a player, it was always, 'What nationality is he?' That put us in a difficult position because it narrowed the options and we sometimes had to settle not for what the team needed but what they [the front office] said we needed.

"That dynamic doesn't exist here. The fans in New York are devoid of any bias in favor or against any particular ethnic group. I think the fans here are more willing to accept anyone who can play. It's not about whether he's a Colombian or a Russian or whatever. They care about whether he's a good player."

In his two seasons as coach of the MetroStars, Zambrano has managed to accomplish what much higher-profile--not to mention more highly paid--coaches failed to do before: He has made the team competitive.

South Africa's Eddie Firmani, Portugal's Carlos Queiroz, Brazil's Carlos Alberto Parreira (the 1994 World Cup-winning coach), the United States' Alfonso Mondelo and Yugoslavia's Bora Milutinovic all tried and failed.

Queiroz managed a .500 mark; the rest had losing records by the time they trudged away from Giants Stadium.

But Zambrano, who was fired by the Galaxy five games into the 1999 season, has turned New York/New Jersey around. He is 33-24-6 overall and has taken the Metro-Stars to the playoffs in both of his seasons in charge.

"The one thing that I can say we have managed to do is that now other teams respect us," he said. "That much I can say. I don't think that was the case before, and that alone is a great source of pride for our fans."

Reaching the playoffs this season has been an especially impressive performance given the tribulations that have beset the MetroStars. One injury after another to key players wrecked Zambrano's hopes of wining the Eastern Division title, and he had to settle for second place behind the Miami Fusion.

The injury situation was--and is--so bad that Zambrano has not been able to field his first-choice team at any time this season. The loss of U.S. national team striker Clint Mathis was the most serious blow, but losing such starters as Daniel Hernandez, Adolfo Valencia, Roy Myers and Tab Ramos has been equally telling.

"Of all the seasons that I have coached, this has been the most difficult one," Zambrano said.

"We never really had a chance to see this team all together at one time. So it has been a difficult year, but I think the guys did well enough to come up with a winning season.

"The fact that we are above .500 and in the playoffs, even though we are the underdog, I don't think anybody can write us off."

Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid is not doing so, and the best-of-three playoff series should provide an interesting tactical lesson.

Zambrano's Galaxy team set MLS records for goals scored and points earned in the 1998 season. The 43-year-old from Ecuador is an attack-minded coach and he carried that philosophy with him to New York.

"We have never been a team that plays for a tie," he said, pointing out that the MetroStars find it difficult to sit back and allow the opponent to bring the game to them. All the same, they are more likely to play a counterattacking game in this series.

"We have so much respect for L.A. that I think this will be a game where we have to change our tactics and draw back a little more," Zambrano said.

"I don't like these types of tactics, I'm not really fond of them, but based on the personnel that we have--we're loaded with defensive midfielders and we have some speed up front--I think we could try to frustrate L.A. a little bit."

The tragic events of the last two weeks, especially the catastrophe in New York, could play a role in the series outcome.

"I think Los Angeles is the most difficult of all the teams that we could have been matched up with," Zambrano said.

"We are undermanned and carrying a little bit of this shock with us. But it will be very interesting to see if our guys can take all of this adversity that we have had and use it as a rallying cry. I'm eager to see what our reaction is going to be.

"We have gone from disbelief to a period of confusion to anger and now we are actually in a mode of trying to do something for ourselves and for the city, to try to give the fans something to feel good about."

In times such as these, even Los Angeles fans won't begrudge them that.

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MLS Playoffs

Galaxy vs New York/New Jersey

Game 1 of a best-of-three series

Rose Bowl, 6 p.m.

How They Match Up

(Galaxy/MetroStars)

Regular-season record: 14-7-5/13-10-3

Goals scored (per-game average): 52 (2.00)/38 (1.46)

Goals allowed (per-game average): 36 (1.38)/35 (1.35)

All-time playoff record: 13-9-1/4-6-0

All-time playoff goals scored: 39/15

All-time playoff goals allowed: 25/19

All-time head-to-head: Galaxy leads the series, 10-5-0.

The teams split two regular-season games this year. The MetroStars won, 2-0, at Giants Stadium and the Galaxy won, 2-0, at the Rose Bowl.

Cross-Currents

New York/New Jersey is coached by former Galaxy coach Octavio Zambrano and features former Galaxy players Steve Jolley, Daniel Hernandez, Mark Semioli, Clint Mathis (injured) and Roy Myers (injured).

Los Angeles assistant coach Ralph Perez was formerly assistant coach of the MetroStars and the Galaxy also features former MetroStar players Ezra Hendrickson and Alexi Lalas.

Sidelined

Galaxy--Brian Mullan (forward).

MetroStars--Clint Mathis (forward), Tab Ramos (midfielder), Roy Myers (midfielder), D.J. Countess (goalkeeper).

The Coaches

Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid is 52-29-14 all-time, including 7-3-1 in MLS playoffs.

MetroStars' Zambrano is 69-40-6 all-time, including 5-6-0 in MLS playoffs.

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MLS PLAYOFFS

First Round--Best of Three

Game 1--Galaxy vs. New York/New Jersey, 6 tonight, at Rose Bowl

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