In an odd twist of MLS fate, this Saturday against Chivas USA will be the second time that expansion teams have played their season-opening matches at home, and as the first time, DC United will again have the dubious honor of being the opponent. And, as in 1998's season opener against the Miami Fusion, United will go into the 2005 season-opener defending a title on the road against the league's newest promotional project in a hostile environment.
United, the defending MLS Cup champions, will no doubt face a screaming crowd of frenzied fanatics in LA as they take on expansion Chivas USA in their highly anticipated first-ever MLS match.
Support for the Mexican-based side should be deafening beyond belief, and if the All-Star game a few years ago is any gauge, then the Home Depot Center will be awash in the red and white of Chivas to go along with their rabid support of the Mexican iconic emblem.
However, United have faced such difficulties before. Back in 1998, United started their MLS Cup title defense in Fort Lauderdale as the opponent of then MLS' newest expansion team, the Miami Fusion. Hispanic fervor was then behind Latin American players like Carlos Valderamma and Diego Serna, as well as Henry Gutierrez and Marcelo Herrera, which made all of South Florida awash with excitement of top flight soccer returning to Miami area.
The pageantry around that game in Fort Lauderdale was almost comical in its carnival magnitude. There were fireworks, balloons, banners, calypso bands, stilt walkers, and even the horrific, yet strangely compelling orange Valderamma wigs everywhere. The Fusion Fanatics were in full force that day adding to the already fever pitch of the local mania bubbling over with the thrill of anticipation of the Fusion's first-ever MLS match.
Like the Home Depot Center will be, Lockhart was sold out to over 20,000 fans weeks in advance, and more than 3,000 fans were even turned away, unable to find a ticket. Frankly, if that kind of support would have kept coming, there'd still be a team in South Florida.
Still, back then it was a sight to see. No doubt Chivas fans will make United feel like the US national team feel when they play in the Azteca. Just like 1998, United will see some familiar faces on the other side of the field; once again, their Cup success the previous season had put their players at the top of the list in the expansion draft.
Now, Thiago Martins and Ezra Hendrickson will likely be on the field against United, but in '98, it was John Maessner who played the full 90 minutes for the Fusion against United, while David Vaudreuil and Kris Kelderman came off the bench.
There was even the horror of losing a player to the England back then. United, while they have not yet replaced the steady leadership of Ryan Nelsen after he left for Blackburn this off-season, had an uneasy few weeks in 1998 as Middlesbrough manager Bobby Robson was inquiring after none-other-than Jaime Moreno, who had spent the offseason on loan with the North England club. Now that would truly have been a hole to fill had Jaime decided to return to the UK at the time.
Heck, United had even unveiled a new captain in 1998, just like they will this weekend, with Marco Etcheverry taking over for John Harkes. Poor Harksie was stripped as captain due to his expected national team duties in France '98, which never actually materialized, thanks to Steve Sampson, who now coaches in LA for the Galaxy.
In another odd parallel, United finished up the 1998 preseason with an uninspiring 2-2 tie against the A-League's New Orleans Storm, while this year, United this year had to come from behind to tie the Charleston Battery by the same score in their penultimate preseason match, leading up to their opener against Chivas USA.
So, it was on the Ides of March in 1998 that United faced the expansion Miami Fusion in front of a rabid crowd in South Florida. However, if history is any guide, then United should be in good shape against Chivas. United beat the Fusion 2-0 behind first-half goals from Richie Williams and Tony Sanneh, then survived the last 60 minutes down a man due to Moreno getting tossed for an impromptu boot to Cle Kooiman's achilles, after taking a rude elbow from Miami's enforcer. It was then up to United's shaky defense, already without Eddie Pope due to foot surgery, to survive a spirited Fusion flurry at the end, but Scott Garlick was not to be beaten that day.
The only holdovers from that day in Florida are Moreno, and a then-highly touted rookie named Ben Olsen, who got his first taste of MLS action in that match. So, it's likely those guys will see the team through another cauldron of raucous support against United in the match against Chivas USA. Let's hope history repeats itself somewhat, and it's Brian Carroll with his first MLS goal, and maybe Josh Gros with the finishing touches, while Moreno avoids retaliating against an equally crude Ryan Suarez, thereby making it easy for our shaky defense to hold off the potentially deadly play of Ramon Ramirez.