DC United History Repeats Itself?

So, let’s see. In 2001, DC United was coming off a year where a lot of overpriced veteran players underperformed badly to the tune of the team enduring the most losses in the league. United was also entering the third year of a coach who was very much on the hot seat as he inherited a winning side, but was rapidly falling out of favor. The brainstaff also decided in the off-season to eliminate a lot of veterans and replace them with a youth movement based mostly from the draft. Sound familiar?

Heck, the two teams were even built similarly. Emilio, the deadly, but streaky forward capable of leading the league in scoring, yet often accused of not being able to mesh well with others. That could be the very description of Abdul Thompson Conteh in 2001, and Obviously, Moreno is still Moreno.

Gomez, the aging MLS MVP hoping for a last few years as the hub of the team and Marco in 2001 are obviously not that far off. A youngish Olsen entering his injury prone years and Fred now looking a bit shaky. Then there was a young Convey then and slightly older Santino now, as opposed to a much more mature Santino now. A Brian Kamler then and McTavish now as utility players couldn’t be more similar. Talley and Burch aren’t that far apart either. Both teams also expected to rely on scoring and timely play from rookies and reserves to cover for what were both projected to be very weak defenses.

But first, a little closer review of the situations. DC United in 2000 was simply the worst team in United history despite a roster full of experienced winners coming off a championship season in ’99. From MLS Cup winners to second worst team in the league which had piled up a stunning 18 losses, the most ever for a United side, a year later. Now, United has gone from Supporter’s Shield winners in 2007 to the most losses in the league in 2008 despite the highest payroll and arguably the most pure talent they’ve ever assembled.

Then at the helm of the Titanic in 2001 was the widely reviled Thomas Rongen, who had inherited Arena’s dynasty and gotten very little credit for winning United’s third MLS Cup in ’99. So, as the iceberg’s closed in during his second year in charge throughout that painful 2000 season, most of the fan base was to turn against the coach quite vigorously. In fact as the 2001 season came crashing down, fans hired the infamous plane to fly over the stadium emphasizing their displeasure, and he was fired after the end of the season.

Soehn is also in his third year after he inherited Nowak’s Supporter’s Shield winning team and was not really credited much for winning another Shield in 2007. And in his second year in charge, as the 2008 season slowly fell apart, most of the fanbase turned against almost as vigorously. One would hope a brutal flyover is not in his future is this season unfolds, but he has to seriously be concerned for his job nonetheless.

Anyway back to 2001, in reaction to that brutal 2000 season, United’s brainstaff decided to jettison some of that perceived dead weight very similarly to what United did this off-season. In 2001, it was the shocking losses of the likes of Carlos Llamosa, Jeff Agoos, Richie Williams, Tom Presthus, and Geoff Aunger, who were all traded or let go to be replaced by an MLS veteran scorer in Conteh, as well as Kamler, Mark Watson, Mike Amman, and a host of high draft picks. This off-season, United dumped Gallardo, Peralta, Martinez, Guerrero, and Vide to be replaced by a veteran scorer in Gomez, as well as adding Jakovic and Janicki (in effect), and a few high draft picks.

Which brings up the draft similarities. In 2001, clearly United’s best draft ever, they collected Mark Lisi, Ryan Nelsen, and Santino Quaranta in the first round, as well as Bryan Namoff in the second, and Craig Ziadie in the third. All of whom would make significant contributions right away. Lisi scored the game-winning goal in the season opener, after two other rookies started that day, Nelsen and Ziadie, while Quaranta and Namoff were to become startlingly effective performers off the bench throughout the year.

This year, United got Pontius and Wallace in the first round this year as well as Kocic in the second. Pontius and Wallace started the first game, with Pontius scoring what should have been the winning goal, but was the eventual tying goal. In fact, Pontius could be considered very similar in Lisi coming out of college as both were highly thought of, very savvy offensive players well suited to making the leap to MLS having the brains and skill as well as athleticism. Wallace and Ziadie could be considered very similar in terms of skills if not in their draft positions.

Also, in some ways the backgrounds of Jakovic and Nelsen could be compared too. Nelsen, a foreigner who played his college ball in America, yet expected to go right to Europe, but the Grasshoppers deal fell through and he signed with MLS the night before the draft. Red Star did come calling for Jakovic right out of college, but that fell through in his first year, so he comes back to MLS. A stretch, I know, but it’s certainly better than comparing Jakovic or Janicki to Watson isn’t it?

Which brings us to how that promising and exuberant start to 2001 ended up after the dust settled. United started off 3-0 at home including a 5-0 thrashing of New England in which Lisi got three assists. Unfortunately, DC then reeled off five straight losses after that heady NE win. But they seemed to turn things back around with two wins in a row including a shocking road win over the defending champion Wizards at the Tomb behind two goals from Quaranta, Namoff with two assists, and Ziadie with the other, that buoyed hopes for a few weeks.

But sadly that all too brief escape from the Eastern cellar was not to last as the season cratered with only one win in the next two months, and only three more total for the rest of the season as United finished last in the East and 10th overall. Still, one of those wins late that year was a startling 5-1 hammering of the Crew where Lisi got the goal that iced the game and both Namoff and Nelsen registered assists. So, there were quite a few bright spots that awful year.

But, as to the fate of those talented rookies over the season, Lisi never really got a good shot at his preferred central midfield role as Marco was hanging onto that like grim death, so Lisi bounced around the midfield with mixed success until finally being shipped off to NY in mid 2002. Pontius might want to take note of that as he has another legendary Bolivian directly in his path in Jaime Moreno who looks like it might take a stake through his Black and Red heart to dislodge him from the lineup permanently.

Nelsen was the defensive midfielder of choice throughout the beginning of the season and played pretty well, but it wasn’t until July when Rongen finally realized he was far better suited to central defense than the decidedly pedestrian Watson. He finished the season strong and locked down the position for the next few years eventually becoming the bedrock of the championship team in 2004.

Quaranta had a stunning rookie year coming off the bench at 16 years old. Two multigoal games, both wins. Five goals 1 assist overall for third place in scoring on a pretty anemic team. And of course, he’s still on the team today after a variety of difficulties and departures have matured him into a very promising young player again.

Namoff suffered a bit early in the season as Rongen constantly switched lineups and tactics trying to find the right combinations in the midfield. But even so he became pretty much a consistent starter by the end of the season after Nelsen was moved into the back and Lisi faded down the stretch. He also notched the second most assists on the team with 7 behind Marco’s 12, and of course he is still here too.

Ziadie might be the most interesting career arc of them all. He seized the starting right back slot out of nowhere and played very well early on. There was legitimate talk of cap tying him to the US National team to prevent him from playing for his native Jamaica in World Cup qualifiers. That’s how highly he was thought of within weeks of entering the league. Sadly, by June he was playing so badly, DC traded for Scott Vermillion and Ziadie barely saw the field again. Talk about coming down in the world, benched in favor of Vermillion is almost cruel. By 2002 he too was shipped to purgatory in NY along with Lisi, and out of MLS completely about a year later.

But, the rookies really did their jobs for the most part in 2001, and when you add in the veterans on offense having respectable seasons, you’d think DC would have fared much better. Conteh led the team in scoring with a respectable 14 goals and Jaime chipped in 9g and 6a. Marco led the team with 12 assists. All decent numbers. But a lot of those numbers came in blowout wins or more often losses because the defense never really settled in and that youngish defense, anchored for the most part by Pope and Nelsen no less, let in 8 more goals than the offense scored as the third worst defense in the league overall.

So, there you go. It’s very possible this team in 2009 can actually live up to expectations and still be very average in the league overall if you go by historical precedent. Fortunately, while these comparisons are interesting, they rarely pan out exactly the same. At least I hope not!

A Blast from the Past

To set the stage for those who may be new to United and didn’t actually experience the grueling pain of United’s fall from grace, let me give you a bit of background for this article.

Of course by 2000, United had been to the first four MLS Cups, winning the first two, were robbed of the third, and then restored to their rightful place in the universe by winning the fourth in 1999. However, DC had steadily been chipped away by 2000, by losing players like Arce, Harkes, and Sanneh among others to the salary cap, and had been stripped of depth in the expansion drafts for Chicago and Miami. Also, Rongen had taken over the team after the Bruce had left for the National team and won a Cup, but was far from having the stamp of approval from the fans.

Still in 2000, United returned virtually the entire starting team from the the Cup winning side of the year before, and most of them literally played for their respective National teams. The only change was losing Rocket Roy as delayed penance for Albright’s demands to be placed with United. So, with United’s track record and the dead set certainty of the fans that another MLS Cup was our birthright, nobody was really concerned about the 2000 season.

But, United started the season with a debacle against the Galaxy at home, and things never really got any better despite expectations that things would turn around at any time. By the time this article was written, United had lurched to 4-12-5 record and was coming off a horrendous 3-0 loss to the Mutiny on July Fourth.

So, here it is from 7-7-2000

The State of United

How can a team go from Champions to chumps in less than a year? That is the question every United fan is trying to figure out. Some believe it’s the coach, others that we’ve lost too many players over the years, or the league is out to get us, or that our players play too many games for their countries, or that management has lost it’s touch, or that aliens have stolen the real players and replaced them with clumsy zombies that wander the field aimlessly until they find some way to lose.

The truth is far simpler. We have gotten too complacent and taken too much for granted. In years past, we always had healthy rivalries for playing time at nearly every position. Players had to fight constantly to stay on the field. Some defender not pulling their weight? No problem, a guy like Gori, Iroha, Kamler, etc. could step right in. Need a midfielder? How about Marsch, Maessner, or Olsen who could come off the bench, take your job and keep it. Forward not scoring? Sanneh, Wegerle, Rammel, etc. were right there hungry for the chance. We always had a bench that was good enough to keep the field players sharp. Now, all our starters are complacent. They’ve won championships and have proven themselves internationally. Who’s going to force them off the field?

All our starters know that as long as they are healthy, no one on the bench is really good enough to actually replace them. All this leads to guys not having the mental focus needed to win MLS this year. Especially as every team got better and have been gunning for us. We should have woken up when LA pounded us in the first game of the year, instead we kept trotting out lame excuses and just simply couldn’t believe we were actually that bad. We tried to get better each and every game so far this season, but instead would lose concentration and miss open shots, fumble the ball into our own net, and allow a staggering 20 goals from set plays, while we barely score at all!

This problem cuts two ways as well. Not only are the starters complacent but the bench gets complacent too. They know that they aren’t really ready yet so they can afford to make mistakes here and there when they do take the field and won’t really get punished them by the coaching staff. This compounds the problem as significant injuries and call-ups almost guarantee losses. Conversely, they also know that no matter what they do positively, they won’t get to play when any given starter returns. Suppose Marco and Jaime are in Bolivia for a while and Convey and Wood combine for 8 goals as we win 2 games. Who will start when they get back? What’s the incentive to really perform?

We need to find or develop better bench players and do it soon. It doesn’t take a lot of guys, maybe one quality forward, midfielder and defender, and if we have to trade someone or cut someone so be it. Not only will this bring a little more competition to the team, but it will shake things up too. It sends a message that you might be forced to move your family to another city if you don’t perform. That would certainly get some people to concentrate for 90 minutes. A little fear is a healthy thing for ridding complacency. This team is very young, aside from Agoos and Arce no one else is 30 and most are less than 26. They need guys to push them or they won’t ever get themselves back to the elite in MLS.

So that was then, but looking at DC’s roster now in 2007, I wonder who exactly United has that will push any starting defender into worrying about actually spending real time on the bench? Or how about Gomez or Moreno? Do they have any reason to fear for their place in the lineup? United has salary cap space left, and it just might be time to go get some solid pros who will at least make some starters focus a little harder on keeping their jobs.

United Win Over Houston Brings To Mind Old Feelings Of Arrogance

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.

Jaime Moreno: The Legend Continues

Any conversation about the most talented and successful MLS players the league's short history certainly has to begin and end with Jaime Moreno. His joining DC United in 1996 turned an average team into the most successful franchise in league history and, as last week makes clear, he is still terrorizing defenses while most of his peers are retired.

Obviously, with his most recent goals against Chivas he pulled within four of the league record 100 set by Jason Kreis, and he has done it in nearly 50 fewer games. As for success, his four MLS Cup titles trails only former teammate Jeff Agoos's five. However, goals and rings alone are not what separates him from the rest of the field when words like 'best ever' get thrown around Jaime.

 

 

Ever since he set foot in MLS, his startling combination of grace and deft touch on the ball, combined with his speed and vicious cunning has left a mountain of sprawling and dumbfounded defenders in his wake. His pinpoint accuracy has frozen many a goalkeeper into stunned awe, leading to heads bowed in rueful admiration. He has simply dominated the league with the ease in which he has humbled the league's best defenders.

 

 

Indeed, his whole body language and facial expressions never made it seem like soccer was such a hard game after all.

There was none of the fury of an enraged Marco Etcheverry storming past the rabble to take control of a game.

None of the fierce determination and indomitable will of a Peter Nowak to lead a team to victory.

No need for the violent physical domination of a Carlos Ruiz or Taylor Twellman.

Jaime simply floats serenely around the thrashing masses until he finds the one weakness to exploit and he promptly slips the dagger in to win the day, as effortlessly and inexorably as a mailman delivers the mail.

 

 

That is why memorable moments are so hard to distinguish, because Jaime has always made it look so easy. There were few thunderous shots where you remember the spectacular successes because they stood out from the multitude of shots into the upper deck. Jaime's shots nearly always are on goal and at precisely the pace that the situation called for. There are no frantically exciting extended dribbling displays that leave you breathless because he never got out of trouble by scrambling around like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs. He simply put the ball and his body into places where no one could do anything to stop him. All the hard work was done by tiny touches and sublime ball control that seemed to magically free him to roll the ball easily past some poor helpless keeper or to a teammate for an easy finish.

 

 

However, with that said, there are some classic Jaime Moreno moments that spring to mind when I think of what he has meant to DC United over the years.

 

 

August 25, 1996 – Jaime scored four minutes into his United debut against the league-leading Tampa Bay Mutiny. In what was to be the first of many tough shots made easy, Jaime leap for a cross that was a hair too high and instead of trying to overpower the ball and miss, he deftly cushions the ball to glance off his head and into the net.

 

 

October 30, 1996 – United were well on its way to winning the double in the Open Cup final when Jaime stamped the game with the final nail in the coffin–a brilliant goal. He collected the ball along the left side of the box and freezes his defender. He looked up stared straight at a United player in front of goal, teasing the Rhino keeper into expecting a cross, then promptly thumped a shot into the near side of the goal, leaving poor Billy Andracki rooted to the ground.

 

 

October 26, 1997 – Possibly Moreno's crowning achievement as MLS Cup MVP. All the pressure is on United to repeat as champion against the surprising Colorado Rapids, who had squeaked into the final after being the last seed in the playoffs. DC, meanwhile, had led the season from wire-to-wire. United were dominating the game, but a tenacious Colorado defense refused to budge. Right when the pressure was getting intense and Colorado thinking they might be able to pull off the upset, Jaime broke open the game with the first goal–another typical finish where it seemed Jaime was thinking and moving while the rest of the world was in slow motion. A cross came into the box to Raul Diaz Arce, and he inexplicably dummied the ball to Jaime. Startled at getting the ball so unexpectedly, Moreno still recovered faster than anyone in the universe and calmly slotted the ball past Marcus Hahnemann before any Rapids player had even moved.

 

 

August 14, 1998 – In a vicious CONCACAF Champions Cup game against Mexican power Leon, Jaime was manhandled unmercifully, but got his revenge with a brilliant goal that was credited to Roy Lassiter, but was really pure class from Moreno. When he finally got some room to operate on the left side of the box, he glided in towards goal assessing the situation. Unfortunately he found his way blocked by desperate Mexicans throwing themselves in front of the goal. So, like Minnesota Fats lining up a bank shot, he turned and fired a shot right off Ole Rocket Roy's foot as he was lounging at the far post. United went on to win easily 2-0.

 

 

November 21, 1999 – After dispatching Miami almost single-handedly in the first round of the playoffs, it was another MLS Cup triumph as Jaime scored the first goal in classic Moreno fashionwith a cool finish inside a swarm of defenders. The goal really should have been scored by Lassiter, but Roy's initial point blank shot was blocked, and as he fumbled to collect the rebound, the disgusted Jaime stepped in to show him how the job was supposed to be done with a clinical shot right into the net. He then showed how a celebration was supposed to be done by running behind the goal and jumping into the Barra Brava. A moment that will live forever in United lore.

 

 

July 22, 2000 – The Newcastle game. United's international reputation at stake and in the midst of a horrid season, Jaime sparked an unlikely win by scoring a stunning goal that still has Englishmen shaking their heads. Midway through the first half, he got the ball at the top of the box and faked some poor guy right to the ground in order to clear space for a wicked shot that settled untouchably into the side netting.

 

 

May 18, 2002 – Even on ugly teams, Moreno found ways to shine, and his constant torment of the Metros gave the United faithful something to cheer about during the dark years. This time, Moreno scored two goals and had an assist against DC's hated rivals. It was the second goal, though, that should live on in glory, as Moreno juked Steve Jolley into a twitching wreck on the turf before roofing a shot past the keeper’s ear.

 

 

However, Moreno has always been a bit overshadowed by a certain countryman named Etcheverry. It's tough to be considered the best in league history when you may not even be the best in your team's history. But quite possibly, his brilliant play and continued success in helping to bring another MLS Cup into the trophy case, along with his near league MVP type play of the past three seasons, might just distance Moreno from any other competition as best ever.

 

 

April 3, 2004 – DC's season opener in RFK against the defending champion San Jose Earthquakes set the stage as it was Jaime's first game back in a United uniform, but the buzz was all about a young Freddy Adu. Freddy had taken Moreno's hallowed number 9, but Jaime had Freddy's number when he stole the youngster's thunder with a brilliant performance. He scored the first goal, and then set up the winning goal with a Marcoesque 40-yard laser to spring Alecko Eskandarian for a lovely goal.

 

 

November 6, 2004 – In one of the most stunning games in MLS history, United beat New England on penalties after a 3-3 finish to the game. Jaime scored the second goal in this classic, and it was a virtual mirror image of a goal he scored in RFK in the '96 US Open Cup final. This time it was Matt Reis he fooled into cheating towards covering the cross, leaving the near side open for Jaime to rip a shot right past the rueful Revs keeper.

 

 

June 18, 2005 – The Revs were thrashing teams in the league on the way to their best start ever, but it was Jaime who reminded them that the Cup still resided in RFK and they hadn't proven anything yet. Twelve minutes into the game, with the Revs reeling from giving up an early goal off a mistake, Jaime finishes them off with a brilliant run through three defenders. On the run, Jaime humbled the rookie of the year, Michael Parkhurst–who was totally flummoxed–before calmly slipping the ball under Reis to put the game away.

 

Nothing raises the anticipation level like when Jaime gets the ball at his feet with his head up, stone-faced and ready to humble those who dare to defy him.

Among the classic memories of DC United will surely be Jaime gliding effortlessly past flailing defenders, only to stop on a dime to let the rabble slide past, leaving him free to casually tuck the ball into the net with that devilish grin on his face.

Here's to hoping those memories never fade, and that his legend continues to grow for a few more years.

A Blast From The Past

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.

For Openers, A Look Back

Thinking about the upcoming debut of the new United in RFK this coming weekend has made me a bit nostalgic about home openers in general. There's that first tailgate of the year when you get to see your extended family of soccer friends. It's just such a beautiful thing to not be the only person wearing a United jersey in public. There's the thrill of releasing all the excitement and hope for the Black and Red's upcoming campaign that's been held in check all winter long. 

 

You finally get to see the new team kicking a ball in anger live in front of your eyes. You get to see the new players, second guess the new coach, witness the odd ring ceremony common in the glory years, even the hopeful prayer for the RFK staff to perform their duties adequately is just like settling into your favorite chair. 

 

Then there's the atmosphere inside RFK. To begin with home openers nearly always have the highest attendance of the year. Other than dubious crowds for doubleheaders, or the odd Hispanic Heritage Horror, RFK crowds on Opening Day are always the highest of that particular season. As a matter of fact, home openers average 25,500 overall and only the '98 and '02 openers had less than 22,000 in attendance. The '98 game was severely hampered in the crowd department by being a windy, rainy 36 degree shiver of a day, and the '02 game followed two solid years of mediocrity and was Easter weekend to boot.

 

Now anytime you get 20 plus thousands of United fanatics together while they're still positive and hopeful, when even the endless nitpicking about players, coaches, or MLS conspiracies are put aside to present a unified roar of support for the newest version of United, the atmosphere created in RFK is just breathtaking. No doubt the team feeds off that energy as RFK home openers are always memorable, if not always in good way.

 

So, here's a brief look at some memories of past home openers:

 

In '96, DC was coming off two brutal away losses and had not even scored a goal yet, but still 35,000 showed up for a showdown with the Galaxy. The thundering roar when Raul Diaz Arce scored that lovely looping shot over Campos after only 7 minutes was so powerful that the stadium literally began to shake, you could feel it in your bones. Sadly, Tamberino had to prove he wasn't a homer by calling a dubious PK for the Galaxy that subdued the crowd and LA won the game with a late goal. Afterwards, Harkes remarked that the RFK fans were incredible and as good as any he'd ever played in front of. He felt bad that the team didn't give their supporters the win they deserved. 

 

In '97, DC was coming off their first championship and playing their fierce new rival from NJ. The memories of the bitter playoff series with the 'Tards was still very keen, so when Pope scored a cheeky little back-heel to embarrass Meola, the feeling of joy was palpable. Of course, De Avila, that sneaky little smurf, had to ruin things with one of his many opportunistic goals against United. But Moreno saved the day with an 89th minute goal that nearly brought down the house.

 

In '98, the frigid temperatures kept down the total attendance, but clearly the loudest element was present in full force to shout down the Wiz. Incredibly, we had only beaten KC one time in the previous two seasons. They had some kind of spell over United that was just merciless back then. Sure enough, after an incredible opening 15 minutes, KC was ahead 2-1 on two goals by Johnston sandwiched around a Wegerle PK. Doom seemed imminent, but Wegerle scored again just before the half and Harkes won the game with a 20 yard bullet in the 75th minute to energize the crowd to near capacity decibel levels.

 

In '99, DC was coming off the dastardly loss to Chicago in the '98 Cup and probably was looking beyond the lowly Clash, plus there was a new coach to kick around. But the largest regular season crowd ever (non-doubleheader) was to be disappointed by DC's performance. After Aunger became the most improbable scorer on Opening Day ever by blasting in a shot before most people had even taken their seats, Cerritos tied the game in the 11th minute. 79 more minutes of MF struggling left the dreaded shootout to decide the affair. SJ won the vicious tiebreaker with Diaz Arce of all people scoring the deciding goal. He'd done nothing all game, but his people gleefully enjoyed his shootout contribution and the love/hate relationship with Salvadorans began that day.

 

In '00, New commissioner Garber joined the SE's during the pre-game tailgate, but that's about the best thing that happened that dark day when DC faced the Galaxy in a rematch of the previous MLS Cup. In what I refer to as The Debacle, DC lost horribly 4-0 and Marco epitomized the day by being ejected after only being on the field for 7 minutes. Memorable as the beginning of a karmic backlash into mediocrity, but best not dwelt on much longer.

 

In '01, DC was reborn for the first time as veterans were traded for draft picks, so it was with a bit of apprehension that the faithful came to watch United battle KC, but the youth carried the day. After an early Lassiter goal, Convey scored his first MLS goal to tie it up. Then McKeon and Arce traded goals to keep it level at two. Finally, Lisi scored the game-winner in the 88th minute assisted by Denton and Albright. Interestingly, none of them are still on the team. And even more interesting, all three season openers with KC have resulted in a 3-2 score-line, with the home team getting the win.

 

In '02, DC was again faced with a new coach quoting promises of changes to come, so hope sprang anew that indeed the Fire would be the first victims of the new regime. Sure enough, Marco curled a highlight film FK into the upper 90, and Reyes got his first MLS point by pouncing on a lose ball and feeding Conteh for the last goal in a 2-0 victory. Sadly, it was memorable for Marco's brilliant shot and for probably being DC's best performance of that entire year. All the hope for that season was dashed by another cold hard cellar dwelling season.  

 

But magically, hope springs eternal. After another off-season makeover, DC faces Chicago again on Saturday to open their home campaign. Its once again time to re-discover old friends, see Earnie Stewart, Dema Kovalenko, and Mike Petke perform their magic live in front of our eyes. Of course we all expect the best, but for me win or lose, I can't wait for that first feeling of awe as RFK begins to rock once again.  

  

United Past 3.21.98

“It will take a month at least for this team to be a real team” as quoted by DC United’s coach to the Washington Post. “We’re way behind, further than any team in the league right nowÉ We need more time, no doubt about it” Nope, these quotes weren’t made by Thomas Rongen in Florida this past week, but from Bruce Arena mere days before the teams opening game in March, 1998.

Recently, the disturbing play and lack of experienced players throughout United’s pre-season has had me feeling pretty anxious about the upcoming season until I looked back at some pre-seasons in the past. That ’98 team went on to one of the best records in the history of the league on their way to their second Eastern Conference crown. Things have changed, of course, and teams are stronger now, but it’s nice to have something positive to think about.

At the time, United was coming off a championship season in ’97, but had just lost their second highest scorer in a trade because of the salary cap (Diaz Arce), two starters (three total players) to Miami in the expansion draft, and was without the services of it’s American and Bolivian Nats players due to commitments that kept them out of almost the entire training camp. They even were without the services of Eddie Pope because of a foot injury! Pretty weird, unless you’re into cosmic anomalies.

So what happened to that unprepared United team of old? They went out and pounded expansion Miami on the road and beat KC easily in their home opener, (And that was when Ammann was KC’s goalie, too! Another cosmic coincidence, no doubt.) by integrating their new talent and experienced veterans into a team that won a berth in their third straight MLS Cup.

Even more interesting is that the opening game was the first since the trade of popular forward Raul Diaz Arce. The Hispanic Community was very vocal in their dissatisfaction over that trade. This year, it will be the reaction over the trades of two National team defenders, a GQ goalie, and the best little defender that could in the history of the team. How will the beer drinking patriots and teen-age soccer-boppers react to that?

The victory over KC in the home opener was particularly compelling to note as we won despite not having Moreno, Sanneh, and Eddie Pope. In this year’s home opener we’ll be missing Moreno, Olsen, and possibly Eddie Pope once again.

But that game, the experienced players came up with the goods as if they’d been in camp all along, and some new faces really made a name for themselves. Marco and Harkes controlled the MF completely, while Ben Olsen (replacement for Sanneh) and AJ Wood (just traded to the team in pre-season), Aunger (waiver pick-up in preseason), and Kamler (finally given a shot at starting) were new faces that took advantage of their opportunity.

Hopefully, this year Marco will return to his old self, Conteh and a rejuvenated Arce will make up for the loss of Moreno, SuperBobby will become the next Olsen, Denton will seize his chance to start, and Kamler will continue what he started back in ’98. It won’t be as easy, since KC is the defending champs this time, but it certainly gives you something to look forward to!