Jaime Moreno: The Legend Keeps Growing

So this week’s commentary is a blast from the past.

From April 12, 2006 –
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.

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. (Note: he’s now helped add three more trophies since this was written.)

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. (He now holds this record at 124 and climbing). 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.

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.

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 inferior masses slide past, leaving him free to casually tuck the ball into the corner of 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 years to come.

And of course it did. The Dallas game this past weekend is the proof. Another game won with two sublime goals, always making it look so easy, yet no one else was able to do it, nor has anyone ever matched his effortless skills. There’s no question about it now, DC United fans have been blessed with the greatest MLS player ever and have been able to watch him for thirteen years.

And don’t just take my word for it. Here are some choice quotes from the past two weeks that say the same thing, including some telling words from the man himself.

“Of course, he always wins the finishing drills,” said defender Bryan Namoff. “The most frustrating thing about Jaime is, he makes it look so easy to someone who’s just watching, when actually going through with it when we’re playing those clinical finishing games, you struggle. And he’s out there just having fun, making it look easy — and winning.”

“I think it’s almost worked to his detriment sometimes with the fans and the media, that he makes it look easy,” said United president Kevin Payne, who described the Bolivian as “the best player in the history of the league” without hesitation. “It’s not easy, he just happens to be very graceful and consummately skilled. So he manages to make it look effortless and it’s not effortless at all.”

“Through the years you get more experience, and maybe you read the game better,” Moreno describing himself when asked about his success recently. “When you come to practice, you always try to learn something different and then you start doing it in practice and in games, it becomes easier. So that’s all I’m doing. In the last five years I’ve enjoyed so much playing football.”

“I think it’s just overall, all the work that I’ve put in through my career,” said Moreno of the milestone’s significance to him (being the first 100-100 player). “At the end of the day, I guess it pays off when you do the right things, and I’ve been fortunate to be in this league for so long. Also, a big thanks to the people who still believed in me, and my teammates, definitely. Without them I wasn’t going to be able to reach these achievements.”

I especially liked his quote after the Dallas match on Saturday when he was asked to describe the winning goal that he lofted beautifully over the helpless Burse. He said he just collected the ball, looked up and saw Burse going low, so he shot it over him. Ahhhh, if only it were so simple.

Now, as he’s even closer to the end of his career, let’s hope he keeps collecting goals and wins that leave us in awe for as long as possible, because I don’t believe he will ever be replaced once he is gone.

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