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Zambrano shortchanged by MLS

Octavio Zambrano could be bitter. He has a right to be.

He could look at his resume and be angry at how coaches with a fraction of his success were getting interviewed for head coaching positions while he stared at a telephone that just wouldn't ring. Zambrano could look at two of his best seasons in MLS (with the 1998 Galaxy and 2000 MetroStars) and ask himself how no team could take a chance on a man who helped shape some of the most entertaining soccer this league has ever seen.

Zambrano could be bitter, but he isn't. He has just been left perplexed at how a coach with his resume could not get a single interview with an MLS club for three years. After waiting for the call that never came from MLS he finally has a team he can focus on. Instead of wondering how he became the coach that MLS forgot, Zambrano is about to restart a coaching career that has been on hold entirely too long.

Zambrano has recently been hired to coach Tiligul, a first division team in Moldova. The Eastern European destination seems like a long way from New York and Los Angeles, but it is the place that has provided him with a chance to get back on the sidelines and back in the game he loves.

"This is a new beginning for me, a chance I am very happy for," said Zambrano. "It was always one of my dreams to be coaching in Europe and I intend on taking full advantage of this opportunity."

Zambrano's desire to return to coaching was reawakened this summer at the World Cup, which he attended as a fan. The excitement and passion he saw on display on Germany was enough to make Zambrano eager to be a coach again, some four years after being fired as head coach of the MetroStars.

That Zambrano had to go all the way to Moldova to find a job is a shame considering the success he enjoyed in Major League Soccer. During his time with the Los Angeles Galaxy and MetroStars, Zambrano built and ran some of the most talented attacking squads MLS has ever seen. The 1998 Galaxy, which boasted a 24-8 record, still hold the league record for goals scored in a season (85 in 32 games).

Perhaps more impressively, Zambrano took over a 2000 MetroStars team that finished 7-25 the year before and led them to within a game of the MLS Cup final. That season was without question the best in the MetroStars disappointing history, an accomplishment made more impressive by the impressive list of high-profile coaches who have tried and failed to take the team that far.

Zambrano's tenure with the Metros also had its bad moments. From his selection of Steve Shak with the first pick in the 2000 MLS Draft (ahead of current U.S. national team players Carlos Bocanegra and Bobby Convey), to his memorable suggestion that Clint Mathis seek psychiatric help, Zambrano had his share of stumbles. The last of which was the Metros failing to make the playoffs in 2002.

Setbacks aside, Zambrano's successes should have at least given him a chance to find another head coaching job in MLS. Not only was he not hired in the three years after leaving the Metros, he was not even granted interviews or ever seriously considered for any of the positions that opened from the end of the 2002 season to today.

"It's pretty mind boggling to think that a coach with his record can't even get an interview," said Nick Sakiewicz, the former MetroStars president who hired Zambrano as head coach in 2000 and fired him in 2002. "We parted ways in 2002 because the team needed a change, not because Octavio wasn't a good coach."

"I don't know how it happens that I go from being a good coach in the league to being unhirable," said Zambrano. "There have been jobs that I felt I was a valid candidate for and to not even be considered is something I will never understand."

Zambrano has his theories about why he became persona non grata in MLS, one being a falling out with AEG, the company which owns the Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, D.C. United and Chicago Fire, and owned the MetroStars before selling them to Red Bull last spring. Zambrano, who still had one year remaining on his contract when he was fired by the MetroStars, fought AEG to receive the compensation he felt he deserved. It was a fight he feared might have led to him being blackballed by MLS clubs.

One other possible factor in the lack of interest from teams is persistent rumors that Zambrano accepted payments from players he brought to the MetroStars. The rumors, which have never been proven, have circulated in MLS circles and could have left some teams wondering whether Zambrano could be trusted.

"I would challenge anybody, any player any agent, anybody, to come to me and say they gave me money," said Zambrano. "More clearer than that I cannot put it. I think people that have issues with me grabbed a hold of this. It's a typical situation of throwing mud at somebody and hoping that it sticks.

"It saddens me that these rumors have gotten to a point where it actually impacted my career," said Zambrano. "That saddens me because it is not true."

Sakiewicz defended his former coach, saying there were never any improprieties during Zambrano's tenure with the Metros.

"That stuff never happened," said Sakiewicz. "Octavio is not that kind of guy. He was always straightforward and he worked hard. Sometimes you have situations where disgruntled players or other people might try to discredit someone but I don't believe any of that stuff."

Zambrano will put aside his MLS past for now as he sets his sights on success in Europe. It won't be an easy task. He takes over a Tiligul club that is currently eighth in the league. He isn't thinking about the difficulty of the task, just about the opportunity to challenge for a place in the UEFA Champions League, UEFA Cup and Intertoto Cup, all competitions that the Moldovan First Division receives spots in.

Though it might not be his main motivation, Zambrano will surely be looking to succeed in Europe to show those MLS teams that ignored him that they made a mistake in writing him off. He wouldn't rule out a return to MLS, but Zambrano must first tackle a challenge that has taken him to Europe. It is a long way to go for redemption, but it will be a trip well worth taking if Zambrano finds it.

Game Previews

And down the stretch they come. The MLS season is down to its final five weeks, which means we should start seeing some more intense matches as eight teams vie for five playoff spots (with Chicago joining D.C. United and FC Dallas in the playoff safe zone).

This week offers a grudge match (Real Salt Lake at D.C. United) and a key divisional showdown (Red Bulls at Revolution). There are also a trio of mid-week tilts that should help clarify two very tough playoff races.

Saturday

Chicago Fire at Columbus Crew Chicago isn't going to catch D.C. United in the East standings but the fact that D.C. is no longer considered a lock to reach the MLS Cup final tells you just how well the Fire is playing. Unmatched depth and a dynamic midfield that is playing well together has Chicago on a five-match unbeaten streak. The Crew is coming off an impressive 3-0 thrashing of New England but it just doesn't have the horses defensively to slow Chicago's dangerous stable of forwards. Fire 2, Crew 0. New York Red Bulls at New England Revolution Though not quite a must-win match, this one comes pretty close as the winner will enjoy some breathing room in the tight Eastern Conference playoff race and the loser falls a step closer to missing the postseason. The Revs must be embarrassed after last week's loss to Columbus and should look considerably better with Shalrie Joseph back in the lineup. The Red Bulls made costly mistakes against Chicago in their 2-1 loss last week but they did show flashes of quality soccer. The problem for Bruce Arena continues to be injuries, which will leave the Red Bulls with too few weapons to hold off a motivated Revs team. Revolution 2, Red Bulls 1. Real Salt Lake at D.C. United It has been more than a month since Real Salt Lake's come from behind victory against D.C. United, July 29 to be exact, not nearly long enough for D.C. to forget how RSL celebrated the victory. Word out of the nation's capitol is that Peter Nowak has had this rematch circled on the calendar ever since and D.C. will be looking to deliver a thrashing. Real Salt Lake has been better on the road this year, but won't be good enough to prevent D.C. from exacting revenge. D.C. United 3, Real Salt Lake 1. Colorado Rapids at Kansas City Wizards This match features two fourth-place teams who have stumbled considerably in recent weeks. The Rapids registered a sorely-needed victory last week and have a little more breathing room in the West than Kansas City has in the East. The Wizards are still trying to figure out what happened to the Eddie Johnson they are paying all that money for. With Johnson still struggling and Jimmy Conrad still out with a broken jaw, the Wizards should be an underdog here but the Rapids awful road record makes it tough to pick them here. Wizards 1, Rapids 0. FC Dallas at Chivas USA They are in first place in the West by a comfortable margin but FC Dallas still seems pretty vulnerable. The Hoops struggled to beat a 10-man Houston squad last week and now they must travel to Home Depot Center to face the same Chivas USA team that posted a 3-0 rout the last time these teams met. Chivas USA saw its seven-match unbeaten streak snapped last week but the Goats continue to play entertaining soccer. Look for them to punish FC Dallas on set pieces as Ante Razov nets for Bob Bradley's squad. Chivas USA 2, FC Dallas 0. Sunday Houston Dynamo at Los Angeles Galaxy That sound you hear is the Galaxy gaining on the rest of the Western Conference. Could we be seeing a replay of last year's script? Play terribly all year and turn it on just in time to back into the playoffs? It could definitely happen, especially with a win against the struggling Dynamo, which hasn't won a match in a month. Can the Galaxy repeat last Wednesday's 3-1 U.S. Open Cup drubbing of Houston? We say it will be closer, but the Donovanettes continue their run. Galaxy 2, Dynamo 1. Wednesday

D.C. United at New England Revolution D.C. delivers a reminder of why it is the runaway leader in the East while New England gets back to its erratic ways. D.C. United 2, Revolution 0. Chivas USA at FC Dallas The Hoops are dangerous at home (10-2-1) while Chivas USA has struggled on the road this year (2-5-5). Seems easy enough to call doesn't it? We hope so. FC Dallas 3, Chivas USA 1 Chicago Fire at Colorado Rapids The Rapids are rock-solid at home (8-3-3) and the Fire has struggled on the road (3-5-4) but Chicago is playing too well to pick against them. Fire 1, Rapids 1. Last week: 3-3 Overall: 45-59 Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.