- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2008

Danny Cepero is having the time of his life. The New York Red Bulls goalie, plucked from obscurity just over a month ago, is proving he’s no fluke. Cepero can write the ideal ending to his fairy-tale story if he helps the Red Bulls beat the Columbus Crew in the MLS Cup on Sunday. It will be just his sixth game in a Red Bulls jersey and the biggest match in the club’s history.

“It’s a dream come true,” Cepero said this week. “I’m having fun with it.”

If ever a “Rudy”-type movie is made about the Baldwin, N.Y., goalie, there will be no shortage of material. Even without a dream ending, Cepero’s story would be inspiring.

His adventure began Oct. 18 when he made his MLS debut against Columbus at Giants Stadium after regular goalie Jim Conway was suspended 10 games for taking a banned substance. He had just a few weeks to prepare.

“The players were adamant they had confidence in me,” Cepero said.

In the 83rd minute of the game, Cepero came out of his 18-yard box to take a free kick. He hit the ball high and long. It took a bounce 20 yards from the goal and went over the head of Columbus keeper Andy Gruenebaum and into the net to make the score 3-1. It was the first goal ever scored by a goalkeeper in league history.

“That could very well be the best soccer debut in soccer history,” Red Bulls striker Juan Pablo Angel told the Associated Press.

For most of the year, Cepero, a fourth-round pick in the 2007 supplemental draft, had been on loan with the minor league Harrisburg City Islanders. He was the Red Bulls’ third-string keeper, earning $12,900 a year as a developmental player.

The pressure was on Cepero for his club’s next game. It was the last match of the regular season, and the Red Bulls needed a road win over the Chicago Fire to secure a playoff berth. It turned out to be a nightmare for the 23-year-old, and he was quickly brought back to earth in a 5-2 loss.

His short season appeared over, with the Red Bulls’ postseason fate in the hands of others. But D.C. United lost at Columbus on the final day of the season, and the Red Bulls (10-11-9) backed into the playoffs by taking the final wild card berth.

Little was expected of New York in the postseason. The team faced defending champion Houston in a two-game series in the first round. After a 1-1 tie at Giants Stadium, the Red Bulls pulled off a stunning 3-0 road win at Houston. Cepero made five saves and earned his first shutout. In the semifinal, Real Salt Lake took 24 shots, and Cepero made seven saves to earn another shutout in a 1-0 victory.

“Overall it’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride for me personally,” Cepero said. “Just starting out playing the Crew, opening up here at Giants Stadium for my first game, fortunate enough to have scored a goal, oddly enough.”

Don’t expect Cepero to score any more goals against the Crew, but if he can earn his third shutout, he just might be the hero in the Red Bulls’ biggest game.

“Sometimes it’s good to be young because maybe when you’re unaware a little bit, you don’t sense the pressure or feel the pressure,” said Columbus coach Sigi Schmid, who is well-aware of Cepero’s form. “There’s a confidence that’s built between him and the team that has helped them.”

Notes - The Bay Area Women’s Professional Soccer franchise will be called FC Gold Pride. … Los Angeles Galaxy star Landon Donovan has signed a three-month loan with German club Bayern Munich. … The U.S. men’s national team will kick off 2009 with a game against Sweden on Jan. 24 in Carson, Calif.