An original ending

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; D1

To appreciate Jaime Moreno's work the past 15 years, ride the creaky elevator to the fourth floor of RFK Stadium. Step into the 1960s-era lobby and amble toward the three glass-doored cabinets. The 39 items on display - trophies, cups, plaques, flags, soccer balls - mark D.C. United's passage of time, and in essence, celebrate Moreno. You won't see his name or photo attached to anything, for these are team prizes. But when you take into account that United has existed for 15 seasons and Moreno, 36, has worn the club's colors for all but one of them, you come to understand the depth of his contribution to MLS's most decorated outfit.

"He has been a constant and provided us with a constant level of excellence," United President Kevin Payne said. "I don't know if we will ever see anyone like him again in our league."

Saturday night, on the final gathering of a forgettable season for both the player and the club, Moreno will end his marvelous run in Washington with a starting assignment on the front line against Toronto FC.

He wanted to stay another year, convinced that his touch and savvy would endure, but with Moreno's impact waning and United (6-19-4) bracing for offseason change, the club decided this summer that it would move on without him.

"I've been pretty lucky to be here for that long," said Moreno, who is mulling a job offer from United but is also considering extending his career in his native Bolivia. "All the work I put into this league and this organization, it always made me believe that I was here for a reason."

Moreno lasted because of his skill and endurance. He never won the MVP trophy and led the league in scoring just once (1997). But he had 10 goals or more seven times and nine twice, accumulated at least 10 assists five times and is the only player in MLS history with 100 goals and 100 assists. In 2007, he set the league record for career regular season goals, only to see Jeff Cunningham of FC Dallas equal it this year (132).

Moreno's playing manner mirrored his personality: consistent and understated but with devilish features.

On the field, Moreno offered cheeky chip shots over rooted goalkeepers and blinding footwork to dodge sprawling defenders. In the locker room and on road trips, he belied his demeanor by serving as team prankster. "If anyone is missing anything," former teammate and current United assistant Mark Simpson said, "you go to Jaime first."

His glossy statistics and honors - eight all-star selections, five Best XI all-league squads - never seemed to matter to him.

"Jaime is not a guy who is out and about, screaming his own name," said United interim coach Ben Olsen, Moreno's teammate for 10 years. "Jaime was the guy behind the scenes, and all he did was show up and produce magic and produce championships and put on great shows."

Moreno is from Santa Cruz in the Bolivian lowlands. His father, Gilberto, worked for the electric company. His mother, Aura, was mayor of La Guardia, a nearby town, and a science teacher. Jaime was a product of the famed Tahuichi Soccer Academy.

At age 22, after two uneventful years with English club Middlesbrough, he arrived in Washington for the last 3 ½ months of MLS's maiden season. Then-coach Bruce Arena would tease Moreno that United's interest in him "saved me from becoming a chicken farmer in Bolivia." They remain close friends.

The acquisition of a young, dynamic attacking player was a coup for a fledgling league that, for the most part, relied on older imports to establish international credibility. Moreno partnered with countryman Marco Etcheverry to help guide United to three MLS Cup titles in four years. He brought pace and slyness, a brilliant first touch and electrifying acceleration in the open field.

"I would try to kick him every time, and I would never get near him," said San Jose Earthquakes Coach Frank Yallop, reflecting on his days as an MLS defender. "Even now, he still has got that elusive way to him."

Moreno, however, had to evolve. The victim of United's roster upheaval after the 2002 season, he spent a dreary year in New York, then underwent surgery to repair two herniated disks in his back. His career was in jeopardy, and though United was willing to look at him in preseason, there were no guarantees of a contract offer.

"I had to leave my pride on the side; all that I had done in this league didn't matter," he said. "If I were a stubborn person like I was in the beginning of my career, I wouldnt've done that test. But I wanted to keep playing and at least prove to myself that I could do it. If I couldn't have gotten through it, I would've hung up my shoes."

While retaining the nuances of his game, Moreno became a smarter player and worked harder on his conditioning. From 2004 to last year, he averaged 10 goals and eight assists per season. At times, he seemed on his last legs, only to summon another spectacular stretch.

"The desire never went away," he said. "I still look forward to driving 42 miles" - the distance to RFK from his home in Leesburg, where he settled with his English-born wife, Louise, and their five children.

This season did not go as planned. His playing time faded, and amid the worst season in United's history, the club decided that it was time to part ways.

The last act is Saturday at RFK Stadium, which became Moreno's workplace when the Redskins still played in Washington and shared the facility with United.

Before practice Friday, his teammates presented him with a Louis Vuitton suitcase that was personalized with his initials and jersey number. They'd like to present another gift in the finale: an opportunity to end his D.C. career with a goal.

"It would be nice to go out that way," he said. "If it doesn't happen, I want to go with a win. That's all I want. That's all I have ever wanted - just to win."

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