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United's Resilient Moreno Is MLS's Comeback Kid

He Goes From Afterthought to Game-Breaker

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 12, 2004; Page D01

It was just another one of those quickly forgotten preseason transactions that appear in small type in the back of the newspaper.

March 2004: D.C. United reacquires the rights to forward Jaime Moreno from the MetroStars for future considerations.

United's Bolivian forward Jaime Moreno, 30, left, overcame career-threatening back surgery last fall to lead the team in points and lead the MLS in assists this season. (Linda Spillers -- AP)

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No one around MLS gave it much thought because Moreno, once one of the league's most feared players, had barely made it through the 2003 season and had undergone career-threatening back surgery in the fall. It appeared to many that United had brought him back merely to give him a proper send-off, a way of saying thanks for all he had done for the club and the league.

"I was only worried about getting a job" in MLS, Moreno recalled. "I didn't know what would happen."

Here's what happened: Moreno, 30, played in all but three games, led United in points (28), led MLS in assists (14) and orchestrated the club's resurgence after four consecutive losing seasons. He also added two goals and an assist in three playoff matches to help United (13-10-10) earn a berth in MLS Cup on Sunday against the Kansas City Wizards (16-10-7) at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.

Moreno's startling contributions made him one of three finalists for the MVP award, and although the trophy was presented to MetroStars midfielder Amado Guevara yesterday, Moreno had perhaps the greatest influence on any MLS team this season. He will likely be named the league's comeback player of the year today.

"I don't think anybody knew what Jaime would do, but you have to believe," United Coach Peter Nowak said. "From our perspective, we had to believe he would come back and be one of the best in Major League Soccer. We gave him some confidence, because we never doubted his attitude and mentality. We didn't know that it would happen so fast."

Moreno, born and raised in Bolivia, spent his first seven MLS seasons with United before being part of a blockbuster trade with New York/New Jersey after the 2002 season. However, the bumps and bruises he had received as a targeted forward had taken a painful toll, and by the end of the '03 campaign, he had managed just 11 appearances and two goals. Surgery was required to repair two herniated disks.

Although his contract with MLS expired last winter, the MetroStars retained his rights. So in order to get him back, United had to formulate a trade. After months of negotiation, during which time he worked out with United, Moreno officially returned to Washington for what turned out to be a first-round draft pick in 2005 or '06, and a second- or third-round pick.

MLS doesn't disclose contract figures, but United officials did say that Moreno's new deal was loaded with incentives because of his uncertain future. His base salary is believed to be only $75,000.

There were still questions about his fitness, but extensive workouts with former Redskins linebacker Eddie Mason, now a personal trainer in Northern Virginia, got him into shape.

"I owe so much to Eddie," Moreno said. "I knew around the end of preseason in Mexico that I felt better. Once the season started, I felt good. Then I started playing more games and I felt tired at one point. But I knew that I would recover and come back and perform at the same level. It was just all the hard work in training."

Moreno scored United's first goal of the season 12 minutes into the opener against San Jose at RFK Stadium. Six weeks later, he scored the game-winner against Kansas City. His first two-goal game didn't come until mid-August against New England. But his most important contributions throughout the year were his ability to hold the ball under pressure, drop a perfectly weighted pass onto the foot of a teammate making a run, and reading an opposing defense -- elements that were glaringly missing from United's attack last year.

His finest stretch came in September, when the club began its late-season charge. On consecutive Saturdays at RFK, he assisted on all three goals against Dallas and all three against Chicago to take over the league lead in that category. Alecko Eskandarian led United in goals with 10, followed by Moreno with seven. Moreno's 14 assists were four more than teammate Dema Kovalenko.

"He's a guy that makes your jaw drop when we watch him play," said midfielder Ben Olsen, the only other D.C. player left from the 1999 championship team. "He does it with such ease. He doesn't play like me, running around like an idiot, arms waving and struggling all day long. He's fluid, and he plays the game so beautifully."

United Notes: The team began workouts in Southern California late Wednesday and will continue to train at Home Depot Center's auxiliary fields. The Wizards didn't arrive until yesterday.

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