DC United's incredible win this past weekend over Houston brings to mind the old feelings of arrogance that used to waft all through RFK Stadium. No matter what the season or the situation, it seemed like United could always count on a victory at home. Even in the beginning of the dark ages, that horrific 2000 season, United's mystical aura of invincibility still commanded respect in RFK, no matter who was coming to town, and no game showed their invincibility more than when they put out the Chicago Fire.
Ironically, it was also the third game of the year in 2000 when DC played the Fire, and it was one of their earlier young prodigies that sparked the win on that incredible day back in April of 2000. This year it was Freddy Adu and Alecko Eskandarian that sparked DC's thumping win, but back then it was a young Ben Olsen that simply stole victory away from a much better Chicago Fire team.
United had been decidedly unimpressive in their first two games that year as well, but while the 2006 version of DC United still managed to get points in their first two games against mediocre teams, the 2000 version of the team had been nowhere near as successful. DC had started that season overconfident and were absolutely crushed in their home opener 0-4 by the LA Galaxy. Then, before that outrage could even be forgotten, DC suffered another horrific loss, 2-3, to the hated Metros on the road in the second game of the season.
So, with United facing the division leading (and eventual 2000 MLS Cup runner-up) Chicago Fire team that included Peter Nowak, Lubos Kubik, and the incomparable Hristo Stoitchkov, as well as Dema Kovalenko and current assistant coach Tommy Soehn, DC faced the very real chance of going 0-3 for the first time since 1996 if they didn't get their act together right quickly. But surely, United would regroup in the friendly confines of RFK. We'd won three of the first four MLS Cups hadn't we? And been robbed of the other by Bozo the Ref in 1998. Surely the universe would realign itself into the correct order when United came home and started to win again, wouldn't it?
However, even with that in mind, there was still quite a lot of trepidation in the United faithful that day. Not only was there just the very beginnings of horror that this team might not be as invincible as United teams are expected to be, but United's first team defense was decimated with early season injuries.
Carlos the Rock Llamosa was out with a groin pull and Carey Talley was hobbled as well, so United had to go without two of their four starting defenders, and their backups hardly inspired confidence.
Geoff Aunger was to take over at right back for Talley, but at that time 'the baby faced assassin' was known more for blissfully skipping away from horrific career-ending collisions than he was for actual defending. And, with him being lined up closer to our goal rather than in defensive midfield where his carnage was put to good effect, it meant that he could be giving up devastating free kicks close to our goal, which might be crucial in deciding the match.
And then there was poor Judah Cooks, who was to take over for the smooth operator from Colombia. Now, young Judah had a cool name, but he had barely played any meaningful minutes and he was assuredly not a signal for dancing and singing among the faithful. Still, he was putting on a DC uniform, and in those days that meant you were going to find a way to excel.
Unfortunately, the game didn't play out that way. First of all, it was brutally rainy, windy and cold. Not 1996 or 1997 MLS Cup brutal, windy and cold, but quite honestly very close to those conditions, and it was Easter weekend then as well, so with the rain and cold along with the holiday, the crowd was pretty sparse to say the least. No real home field advantage there as it were.
Second of all, Chicago simply put the hammer to DC for most of the game. DC had taken a miraculous lead with a John Maessner goal totally against the run of play when Maes gathered in a poor clearance at the edge of the box and pounded a shot past Chris Snitko in the Fire goal. But the Fire were buzzing around the DC goal like moths to a flame and had simply been unlucky to score.
For example, in one of the most incredible plays ever seen in RFK, Stoitchkov thundered down the left side of the field, and at full speed glanced up and cracked a wicked 40-yard curling cross right onto Ante Razov's right eyebrow as he leaped towards goal. Unfortunately, Razov wanted the cross on his left eyebrow, so he missed the header just wide, but you get the idea. Chicago were just storming the gates like orcs to Helm's Deep.
And finally, DC's defense was overwhelmed by the Fire, and nobody crumbled more than poor Judah Cooks. I mean, he was really trying to do his best, but the Fire simply were so much better than he could ever hope to be. He just broke down under their pressure and even resorted to using his hands, but still couldn't keep them under control. He batted a ball off the line to prevent a sure goal for Chicago and got away with it. He then just gave up any real pretense at defending and began swatting at the ball like he was playing volleyball, as well as grabbing players like it was rugby. How he wasn't sent off in the first half was amazing and should still be used as a training film for budding referees.
Inevitably, the Fire did tie it up before the half with an absolutely stunning freekick from Stoitchkov. Kubik touched the ball to Hristo and he buried one of his howitzer shots from 25-yards untouchably into side netting, then gave his famous salute to the crowd like he was a tank commander following orders from Patton to invade Germany.
So, with 45 minutes to go, it didn't look good. United were reeling and the weather wasn't getting any warmer. It just seemed like the gods were against United in this game and an 0-3 start inevitable. That surely would have cracked the invincibility of RFK for good, but the finish of the game was to become the MLS version of the Manchester United UEFA Cup finish over Bayern Munich a few years later, especially as Chicago dominated the early parts of the second half.
But the tide seemed to change in the 70th minute as the Fire's Andrew Lewis was sent off for wicked hack on Jaime Moreno. Chicago went down to ten men and United should have been able to take advantage. Unfortunately, the Fire held on until former DC player Jesse Marsch hammered in another goal to put the Fire up by a goal with only five minutes left.
That only set the stage for the greatest comeback in United history, as they won the game with two stoppage time goals.
United stormed the Fire goal over the last five minutes and earned a corner kick with a minute remaining. Olsen leaped at the ball and not wanting to waste any time, he quickly smacked a cross from the corner right to Moreno, but Moreno's shot cracked off the post. Unperturbed, La Bomba calmly slotted in the rebound to tie the game.
Incredibly, DC took the ensuing kickoff and forced another corner kick in the second minute of stoppage time. This time, Marco Etcheverry took the kick, befuddling the Fire defenders into a weak clearance that Olsen pounced on and hammered home for the winning goal. His jubilance and the team's celebration in the rain that day will live forever in the minds of true United fans for all time.
United went on to a rather ignoble fate that season, but that one victory, along with so many others over United's history, surely cements RFK as one of the most difficult road venues in MLS, as the Houston Dynamo found out this past weekend.