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Rating the MLS Cups

A monthly column about the State of U.S. Soccer that takes a hard look at everything from the performance of the U.S. National Teams to pro soccer in the good ‘ole U-S-of-A . If you’re looking for a viewpoint that you won’t see in a generic, nuts-and-bolts U.S. Soccer press release, you’ve come to the right place.

With MLS Cup 2002 coming up on Sunday (Oct. 20, live on ABC at 3:30 p.m. ET), the Armchair Midfielder looks back at the past six MLS Championship games, highlighting both the best AND the boring of the league’s brief title match history.

1996 – D.C. United 3, Los Angeles Galaxy 2 (OT) – Foxboro Stadium
As ESPN might say, this one was an “instant classic,” and was a well-deserved celebration and conclusion to a very successful inaugural season. The underdog coming back from a 2-0 deficit with less than 20 minutes to play only to tie it and score a golden goal in overtime, all the while in a torrential downpour? What a game. L.A. looked like the league’s best team across the regular season (sound familiar?) and was ready to dominate in the final (or at least the first half), but they ran into a gutsy D.C. team that had already proved it could fight through hardship (read: an 0-4 start to its first season). So to come back from two goals? Piece of cake. Especially when you have the “magic triangle” of Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno and Raul Diaz Arce up top carving through the defense. Looking back, maybe bringing journeyman Curt Onalfo onto the field in the 77th minute to try to secure a 2-0 lead wasn’t one of Lothar Osiander’s smartest moves (but still somewhere above taking the Clash job in 1999).


1997 – D.C. United 2, Colorado 1 – RFK Stadium
Just two years into the league, and we already have our first back-to-back championship. Hmmm. Blessing or curse? In my book, it turned out to be a blessing, as over the first four years, D.C. United set the standard to which teams (L.A., for one) are still trying to achieve. That standard: get to the final every year. But D.C. wasn’t the only common denominator in the first two MLS Cups. Another: pouring rain. A third: an important Tony Sanneh goal. After Moreno scored off a brilliant dummy by Diaz Arce in the 37th minute, it was Sanneh who snapped home a header in the 68th minute to provide the game winner. Only the off-the-bench effort of solid forward Adrian Paz helped the Rapids salvage some dignity, scoring in the 79th minute to make it look respectable. Looking back at this Rapids team [featuring the talents of Matt Kmosko, Sean Henderson, David Patino (who?) and Steve Rammel -- AND THESE GUYS WERE STARTERS!!!], they could stand as the worst to have played in a final. Let’s admit it -- we all knew D.C. would walk out of their home stadium with a second title and those familiarly rain-soaked, triple-striped uniforms when it was all said and done. D.C. 2, rest of MLS 0.

1998 – Chicago Fire 2, D.C. United 0 – Rose Bowl
Where the ’97 Rapids might be the worst, the ’98 Fire team may be the best single team that MLS has put on the field in a championship game. And they proved it with two titles in their first season in the league. But before they could claim the Open Cup title, Chicago had to stop D.C. from what looked like a good shot at a three-peat. For that, midfielder Chris Armas stepped up to the task, neutralizing the likes of midfield maestro Marco Etcheverry along the way. On the offensive, it was the stellar performance of Peter Nowak that brought Goliath to his knees, as the Polish playmaker provided the assist on Jerzy Podbrozny’s opening goal in the 29th minute and then banged a shot off the chest of Diego Gutierrez and past D.C.’s Tom Presthus for a commanding 2-0 lead that held up as defenders Lubos Kubik and C.J. Brown, and especially goalkeeper Zach Thornton (who recorded eight saves), put the clamps on the fluid United attack the rest of the way.

1999 – D.C. United 2, Los Angeles Galaxy 0 – Foxboro Stadium
A rematch of the ’96 final, this time D.C. entered as the better side. But instead of a sloppy, but dramatic overtime win, we were stuck with a relative sleeper in which D.C. had little trouble regaining their MLS crown and cementing their dynasty as the first chapter in the MLS history books. It seemed most major happenings in this clunker looked to be caused by poor field conditions at Foxboro, starting with Galaxy captain Robin Fraser being rode to the ground by Roy Lassiter and suffering a nasty shoulder injury that clipped him from the big game in just the 5th minute. Okay, maybe it was less the field and more the fact that Galaxy goalie Kevin Hartman had a bit of a shocker.  Hartman surrendered the first goal after a kick save of a Lassiter shot fell to Moreno, who finished easily in the 19th minute. While L.A. was unlucky not to find the net after a few flurries in front of the goal across the first half, D.C.’s fortunes were the polar opposite. In the third minute of stoppage time, Hartman mis-kicked a drive downfield and it rolled right to United winger Bennie Olsen. Facing an empty net, Olsen calmly finished in the unguarded goal and the game was all but over for the Galaxy at the halfway point yet AGAIN. Combine the first-half flukes with an awful and out-of-place halftime performance by a pre-tramp-makeup Christina Aguilera (I’m thinking the Women’s World Cup would’ve been a more appropriate and receptive audience), and it was a bad day all around.

2000 – Kansas City Wizards 1, Chicago Fire 0 – RFK Stadium
Another snoozefest. I hate to say it, but as much respect I have for the coaching job that Bob Gansler did in turning the Wizards around and getting to the final, and as much as I admire the way that Tony Meola & the defense in front of him shut out the league’s best teams all year long, the 2000 Wizards were like watching paint dry. After they took advantage of a series of Fire miscues that resulted in a goal from the Danish Dynamo (one of the best nicknames in league history, by the way) Miklos Molnar in the 11th minute, the Wizards went about suffocating their opponent like they did all year. Effective? Yes. Frustrating to watch? Even more so. With the Fire attack coming in waves, you could tell early on that it was one of those games where no matter how many chances they had, no matter how many shots they put toward goal (22 total and 10 on goal -- to the Wizards 6 and 3), no matter how many times they hit the post, the better team just wouldn’t get on the board. And so it was. I guess defense does, in fact, win championships (even with Preki).

2001 – San Jose Earthquakes 2, Los Angeles Galaxy 1 (OT) – Crew Stadium
This was a good one, almost as good as the inaugural version. Add a heart-warming, almost too-good-for-Disney, worst-to-first storyline to the dramatic overtime victory MLS Cup script and you’ve got one of the better games in all of the league’s history. I’d still give MLS Cup ’96 the nod for the nostalgia factor. L.A. got on the board first with a characteristically opportunistic strike from Luis Hernandez, a.k.a. the player you love to hate. But the Quakes showed some fight before the break, equalizing on a brilliant first-time strike from Landon Donovan after a seemingly harmless Ian Russell cross. In overtime, San Jose fans were left singing “Oh, Canada!” as late sub Dwayne DeRosario used Danny Califf and blistered a shot past Hartman in the sixth minute of overtime for the unlikely outcome. With San Jose being just so plain bad over the league’s first five years, I don’t think there was a single person in the press box that wasn’t secretly pulling for the rag-tag bunch from NoCal. New nickname = immediate success? Well, it worked for the Clash.

Prediction: 2002 – Los Angeles Galaxy 3, New England Revolution 1 – Gilette Stadium
Will L.A. be turned into the Buffalo Bills of the MLS? Well, we saw what happened the first two times the Galaxy played in Foxboro, but it shouldn’t take the change in venue (and venue name) to help L.A. exorcise its MLS Cup demons. Sure, the Revs showed a lot of heart and spunk in finishing as one of the hottest teams in the league as Season 7 concluded, but let’s not forget what underachievers they were early on and what a mess they still were at mid-season. Boston does have some great fans, and home-field advantage will play a part, but L.A. is too complete of a team and it would be too cruel a fate for the Galaxy to be denied a fourth time.

Table of Contents
1) Armchair Midfielder (Rating the MLS Cups)
2) In Threes (w/ U-20 MNT defender Ryan Cochrane)
3) Then and Now (w/ former WNT midfielder Shannon Higgins-Cirovski)
4) Queries and Anecdotes (w/ MNT midfielder Cobi Jones)
5) Mark That Calendar (October = Everything)
6) Superstar!!! (w/ WNT defender Danielle Slaton)
7) FAN Point/Counterpoint (Impact U.S. Player for 2002 Women’s Gold Cup?)
8) "You Don’t Know Jack (Marshall)" (MLS Cup trivia)

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