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  •   D.C. United's Season Ends in an Upset

    D.C. United Coach Bruce Arena
    D.C. Coach Bruce Arena, left, may have coached his last game for United in Sunday's loss. (AP)
    By William Gildea
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, October 26, 1998; Page A1

    PASADENA, Calif., Oct. 25 – D.C. United set out for the Rose Bowl today, confident that its third Major League Soccer season would conclude as perfectly as the first two, and that Coach Bruce Arena would depart for his expected appointment as the U.S. national team's coach in the manner he arrived – as the maestro of a dynasty.

    But by the score of 2-0, the Chicago Fire, an upstart expansion team, unseated the only champion the nascent league has known, winning MLS Cup '98 before 51,350 fans both sun-drenched and surprised.

    With today's setback bitterly punctuating three years of overwhelming success, Arena likely will set off to improve America's international soccer fortunes after a 32nd-out-of-32 finish in this year's World Cup. Meanwhile, the players face an irony generated by their success; their anticipated higher salaries may not fit under the league's salary cap, perhaps forcing some to go elsewhere.

    "I'm proud of the team," Arena said. "I find it hard to believe they're not the best team in the league."

    Chicago won the game on two first-half goals, with its star, Peter Nowak of Poland, assisting on both. But Arena made no attempt to hide his disagreement with a pair of referee's calls in the first half that may have cost United a goal and definitely led to one by Chicago. Arena and United believed that its star midfielder, Marco Etcheverry, the league's most valuable player, should have been awarded a penalty kick after an apparent Chicago foul was not called. Later, the Fire scored a morale-crusher in the 45th and final minute of the half when a shot by Nowak deflected off teammate Diego Gutierrez, who was five yards forward, despite heated United protests of offside.

    "I'm very disappointed with a couple of calls," Arena said. "You don't want to take away from the Chicago Fire's day, but we had an opinion on the officiating today. If a couple of breaks go our way, we may have won. This may have been our best team."

    As it was, one of Arena's closest friends, Bob Bradley, an assistant with United the past two seasons, completed a masterful job of helping build and then coach the first title-winning expansion team in major American sports. "To play D.C. United meant a great deal because I was part of it, and to come away with a victory, I'm very, very proud of our team," Bradley said. "I think the breaks went our way. But I guess soccer works that way."

    Most of the action was compressed into the first half as the Fire dropped back into an 11-man defense in the final 45 minutes. D.C. United missed a number of scoring opportunities from the very outset, including one by Jaime Moreno that developed off the opening kickoff. A Moreno header also sailed just above an open net. United's high-scoring forward Roy Lassiter had no better fortune, and when he was on net he was stopped by Zach Thornton, a graduate of Loyola of Maryland who played outstandingly in the Fire's goal.

    Chicago's players showed quicker feet, a sign that they were rested after an eight-day layoff, whereas United had played just four days previously and had to travel cross-country Friday. The Fire would have had four first-half goals had not United defender Jeff Agoos cleared a Chris Armas shot off the goal line and Ante Razov not hit the right post.

    Nowak, the game's most valuable player, artfully set up the first goal and got lucky on the second. First, he took a pass from Razov in the 29th minute as he broke free on the left side, closed patiently on United goalkeeper Tom Presthus and finally slid his assisting pass to his right to another charging midfielder, fellow countryman Jerzy Podbrozny, who had gotten much too deep for Presthus to deny.

    Nowak broke loose again in the 45th minute, this time in the center of the pitch. A mighty boot from just inside the 18-yard line skimmed off midfielder Diego Gutierrez and zipped into the left side of the net as Presthus broke to his left. This was the shot, in the dying seconds of the half, that all but decided the game, and Arena argued it with referee Kevin Terry all the way across the grass to the dressing room.

    "When you get ahead 1-0, getting the second goal is key," Bradley said. "We've had trouble doing that the entire playoffs. That goal was critical. [It] was a weird one, with Razov running through the area and the ball ricocheting into the goal. But that's what I meant by saying we got some breaks today. Those breaks helped determine the result."

    Presthus thought that the referee could have called offside against either Razov or Gutierrez. "It's just unlucky," he said, adding that the second goal was so sharply deflected "it was heading for the left side of the net and ended up in the right side. It was deflected the whole width of the goal."

    So it was that Arena and his players were left to ponder what might have been. They had won their two MLS Cups under dreadfully rainy conditions in Foxboro and RFK stadiums, but today was bright with promise. At a time when Washington sports fans could have used a psychic lift after being let down by their winless Redskins, United seemed a likely antidote. "It hurts giving up a goal just before halftime," Arena said. "One goal down, I think the game looked a little different. But maybe the way it was today, a whole lot of goals were not going to go in because of the way Thornton was playing and the way players were blocking shots."

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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