Fire Ends United's Championship Run
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 26, 1998; Page C1
PASADENA, Calif., Oct. 25 Amid anger and anguish, tears and disbelief, D.C. United's reign over Major League Soccer and Coach Bruce Arena's confident guidance along the way came to an end today with a 2-0 loss to the expansion Chicago Fire in the championship game before 51,350 at the Rose Bowl.
After winning the league's first two titles, two-time champion United had nothing go its way in Arena's final appearance in an MLS game. On Tuesday in New York, the U.S. Soccer Federation is planning to introduce him as the new coach and technical director of the U.S. national team. Final details on a four-year contract were to be completed tonight.
Although Arena will remain with United for a two-game tournament against a Brazilian club in the coming weeks, today's game marked the end of a brilliant run in which United set a high standard of excellence in a fledgling league.
"I'm very proud of what we accomplished here," said Arena, who wouldn't comment on his plans. "It has been very special."
But it ended with United (28-10) being shut out for only the second time in the past 14 months, and the Fire (25-12) became the first expansion team in U.S. sports history to win a championship in its inaugural season. Polish midfielder Jerzy Podbrozny scored in the 29th minute and midfielder Diego Gutierrez of Colombia added an accidental goal a minute before the half.
Podbrozny's countryman, playmaker Peter Nowak, was named the MLS Cup's most valuable player after playing a part in both goals and directing Chicago's modest attack.
"The breaks went our way today," said Fire Coach Bob Bradley, a former United assistant and one of Arena's closest friends. "Soccer sometimes works that way, and today was our day."
It certainly was not United's day. D.C. missed the target several times, starting 15 seconds into the match and ending in a flurry of opportunities near the finish. It had dangerous crosses just miss the mark and sizzling shots stopped by a well-positioned defender or goalkeeper Zach Thornton. A former Loyola (Md.) College soccer and lacrosse star, Thornton made several excellent saves.
United had a 22-10 advantage on shots and 12-3 edge on corner kicks, and the Fire committed 27 of the match's 35 fouls.
"We had a lot of chances, as usual," United defender Eddie Pope said. "We didn't finish them. That's not right for us. We usually take care of those things. It didn't happen today."
United's players, coaches and officials did not take anything away from Chicago's performance, but they had plenty of criticism for referee Kevin Terry and his linesmen.
D.C. midfielder Marco Etcheverry, the league's most valuable player, was tripped deep in the penalty area in the early moments, but Terry signaled for play to continue instead of awarding a penalty kick.
On the Fire's second goal, United contended that Chicago forward Ante Razov was offside and that Gutierrez's goal a deflection off his mid-section on Nowak's shot should have been disallowed. But Terry ruled that Razov did not interfere with the play and that no call was necessary.
"It's very disappointing, with this much at stake, to have officiating as bad as it was," said Kevin Payne, United's president and general manager. Terry "picked a heck of a day to have a stinker."
There were no disputes about the Fire's first goal a gem involving several Chicago players and set up by Nowak. Defender Lubos Kubik found Nowak, who slipped the ball to Razov at the top of the penalty area.
Razov returned the ball through the defense to the on-rushing Nowak, who waited for goalkeeper Tom Presthus to commit before crossing to Podbrozny for the finish.
Chicago nearly went ahead earlier, but Razov's 18-yarder struck the base of the right post. United forwards Jaime Moreno and Roy Lassiter, who combined for 34 goals in the regular season, each let good chances slip away with poor shooting and heading accuracy.
In the second half, United put shots on net, but Thornton was outstanding.
In the 48th minute, he made a reflex save with his right arm on Lassiter's header. In the 56th, Lassiter's header in traffic struck the hand of defender Francis Okaroh, but Terry didn't award a penalty kick, apparently because Okaroh hadn't touched it intentionally.
Thornton's best save was in the 76th, when he dived to his left to rob Lassiter on a 10-yard header. United pushed more players forward as time ticked away, but Kubik and the other experienced Fire players made sure United could not come back.
In the final two years ago, D.C. overcame a two-goal deficit in the final 27 minutes of regulation and beat Los Angeles in sudden-death overtime.
But instead of a celebration that year and again last year at sold-out RFK Stadium last year, United walked off the field as another team raised the trophy.
"They deserved to be here," Arena said, "and they deserve to be champions."
D.C. United 0 0 0 Chicago Fire 2 0 2 SCORING Podbrozny (Nowak, Razov), 29th minute; Gutierrez (Nowak), 45th. LINEUPS D.C.: Presthus; Sanneh (Wood 70th), Llamosa (Slivinski 81st), Pope, Agoos; Williams, Harkes, Olsen, Etcheverry; Moreno, Lassiter; Chicago: Thornton; Brown, Kubik, Okaroh; Armas, Gutierrez, Marsch, Podbrozny, Nowak (Wolff 79th); Kosecki (Klopas 56th), Razov (Soehn 74th).
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