By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2008
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 22 -- Before Oct. 16, Danny Cepero was among dozens of obscure MLS developmental players earning less in a season than David Beckham was collecting in 10 minutes each game. He was a 23-year-old prospect who had been loaned for the summer by the New York Red Bulls to a third-division club and whose career seemed geared more toward an academic field than the soccer field.
Before Oct. 16, Cepero was a reserve goalkeeper with almost no hope of playing in a meaningful MLS game this year, an uncertainty that prompted him to commute once a week to Philadelphia in pursuit of a degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania.
But on that day five weeks ago, as the Red Bulls stumbled toward the playoffs, the fortunes of both Cepero and a perpetually disappointing franchise took an extraordinary turn and steered New York toward its first MLS Cup appearance.
Starting goalie Jon Conway, as well as teammate Jeff Parke, was suspended 10 games for violating the league's ban on performance-enhancing drugs, the first such penalty in MLS's 13 years. With two matches remaining, a postseason berth in the balance and the trade deadline passed, the Red Bulls had to choose from three reserve keepers without any league experience.
They chose Cepero.
"When the chance came," Coach Juan Carlos Osorio said, "he grabbed it with two hands."
Cepero has played well in the playoffs, making several quality saves in both the first-round finale against two-time defending champion Houston and in the Western Conference title game against Real Salt Lake. But before anchoring New York's postseason uprising, he made history in his Oct. 18 debut against the Columbus Crew, the team the Red Bulls will face in MLS Cup on Sunday at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
Deep in New York's end, Cepero directed a free kick toward teammates in the penalty area. When no one made contact, the ball sprung off Giants Stadium's artificial turf and drifted over the head of advancing Crew goalie Andy Gruenebaum -- an 80-yard accident that made Cepero the first keeper to score in MLS.
Favorable bounces also have worked in his favor in the defensive end. Houston hit the crossbar and squandered numerous opportunities during the decisive game of that playoff series and Real Salt Lake sent three shots off the posts of a 1-0 game last weekend.
"In terms of thinking I'd be thrust into playoff situations and be looking at an MLS Cup final, I absolutely never thought it would happen," said the Long Island native, who endured a 5-2 loss at Chicago in the regular season finale. "I'm having fun with it and obviously you enjoy it a lot more when you're winning. It's just been a great experience to be out here and contributing and trying to do something that this organization and this club hasn't done."
Cepero, Penn's all-time leader in shutouts, was passed over in the 2007 MLS draft and claimed by the Red Bulls in the fourth and final round of a supplemental process a few days later. He signed a junior developmental contract, which pays $12,900. As a rookie, he appeared in reserve division games and spent several weeks last winter training informally with Dutch club PSV Eindhoven. This season, in an effort to get him into competitive matches, the Red Bulls loaned him to the Harrisburg City Islanders, who play in USL2, the third tier of the U.S. pro system.
"I looked at it as a learning experience and an opportunity to get better," said Cepero, who yielded 18 goals and had six shutouts in 18 appearances.
The Red Bulls were pleased with Cepero's development, but with Conway starting every game, he was not in their immediate plans. When Conway was suspended, though, their strategy changed dramatically.
"Being thrown into the fire and performing the way he has, it's a testament to Danny," Red Bulls sporting director Jeff Agoos said. "He didn't expect to find himself in a situation like that. It's nerve-racking and he has made the most of it."
Penn Coach Rudy Fuller said he and the Quakers have been following Cepero's performances closely since being named the starter. On the night Cepero scored, Penn was playing at Dartmouth. When the players boarded the bus after a 1-0 victory, Fuller said, they all checked their hand-held computers for the New York score. Someone announced in amazement that Cepero had scored, prompting cheers and laughter.
"He will probably tell you that his kicking game is the weak point of his game," Fuller said. In a more serious tone, he added: "He is very sound as a person and a player, very mature. I really felt he just needed to get his foot in the door and he would take care of the rest."
Cepero's sudden emergence in MLS has not distracted him from his studies. He has one course remaining before he can graduate next month: The End of European Empires. On road trips, he has brought along textbooks to prepare for a 30-page paper due in a few weeks.
"Once I get back home, I'll have to tackle that, but I'm not worrying about it too much right now," he said. "This game is the focus."