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  •   Sadly, It's a Game of Chance

    Michael Wilbon By Michael Wilbon
    Washington Post Columnist
    Monday, October 26, 1998; Page C1

    PASADENA, Calif. – The game was maybe 15 seconds old when Jaime Moreno found himself 12 yards from the goal, totally unobstructed, with a chance to give D.C. United the lead in the championship game of a sport in which a one-goal lead is often insurmountable.

    Moreno's blast wasn't even close to the net. Not 10 minutes into the game, Tony Sanneh's header slid just wide of the net. In the 18th minute, Moreno blew a header after taking a perfect corner kick from Marco Etcheverry. And so it went for 90 minutes, chance after beautifully created scoring chance, wasted. If it wasn't Roy Lassiter's header being stopped by Chicago goaltender Zach Thornton, it was Moreno sending a header over the net, or Thornton going high to prevent Ben Olsen's blast from sneaking under the crossbar.

    "Everybody's asking me how I feel about the ref missing a penalty or the second goal being offsides, but this game was about our chances we didn't convert," United veteran John Harkes said. "That's all it is: chances."

    Or as Eddie Pope, the brilliant young D.C. defender, said, "If Moreno's shot goes in and Etcheverry gets a penalty kick, it's 2-0 and it's perfect."

    Instead, it was 2-0 and perfectly Chicago. D.C. United's two-year run as league champion stopped here in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains in the MLS Cup because the D.C. players couldn't score when they had chances and because of two glaring mistakes by the officials that turned the game. Bruce Arena's final game as head coach of United will go down as an unpalatable defeat.

    You sound like a "homer" when you say the home team wuz robbed, but it would be irresponsible to deal with the particulars of this game and pass over the two non-calls that turned the game.

    Three minutes in, when the game was still scoreless, D.C.'s Etcheverry, the league's MVP, was making a move with the ball inside the penalty box when he was tripped by Chicago's Chris Armas. That, boys and girls, calls for a penalty kick. It's not subject to interpretation, and it didn't happen in a tangle of bodies that obscured the action from the refs. Etcheverry is as certain to make a penalty kick in a title game as Michael Jordan is to make a free throw in the final 10 seconds of Game 7 of the NBA Finals. It's money. D.C. should have led 1-0.

    The other non-call directly allowed Chicago to take a 2-0 lead. With the Fire already leading 1-0 on as clever a goal as you'll see, Chicago's Peter Nowak took a shot while two teammates – Diego Gutierrez and Ante Razov were inside the penalty box. That, boys and girls, is offsides. "In anybody's imagination," Arena said. The ball deflected off Gutierrez and into the net. By definition, the goal should have been disallowed.

    The MLS referee issued a statement saying that Razov, "while in an offsides position, did not interfere with play." Oh, so screening a goalkeeper isn't "interferring with play." Not only was Razov offsides, but Gutierrez was offsides.

    It's bad when your championship game – an entertaining game full of scoring chances, great defense and spectacular goaltending (by Thornton) is marred by zebra gaffes. Baseball umps are off the hook for the moment.

    It could have been really spectacular had a tied game – say 1-1 – gone into sudden death and then to a shootout, because Thornton was doing his Dominik Hasek impression. The guy was impenetrable. He's probably the most interesting story on the Chicago team, even better than Coach Bob Bradley, who got the best of his close friend and longtime mentor, Arena. Thornton sat behind Tony Meola for two years in New York/New Jersey. Then this season, he was slated to sit behind Jorge Campos, the acrobatic and world-class goaltender from Mexico. But after Campos returned from the World Cup, Thornton was playing so well that Bradley opted to stay with Thornton, who is from suburban Baltimore and was a standout soccer and lacrosse player at Loyola (Md.). Campos, who wasn't about to sit, left the Fire a couple of weeks ago and returned to his league team in Mexico.

    As upset as Arena was about the non-calls, he did say, "It didn't look like a bunch of goals were going to go in the way Thornton was playing. . . . I'm disappointed with the controversial calls, but maybe it doesn't make a difference anyway because the Fire played like champions. At the end of the day, the Fire played like champions and D.C. United went down like champions. . . . That's the only fair way to walk out of here."

    I suppose the league could fine Arena for his postgame comments, which under the circumstances were relatively benign, but you know what Arena could do? He could just say, "Sue me. I'm not paying a dime because I'm not in your league."

    Tuesday morning, his universe opens a whole lot wider than the MLS. In New York, Arena will be named head coach of the U.S. men's national team.

    As great a run as this has been, and even though Arena is welcome to stay with United for a long, long time, the job change is something that makes all the sense in the world for him. It makes even more sense for U.S. soccer. What challenge is left for Arena in the MLS, to reach the finals for a fourth time in four years? The challenge is at the national level, where the U.S. team needs a smart, tough, arrogant teacher and leader of men who has proven he knows what he's doing and can mobilize the necessary resources, from players to widespread support.

    There's no American soccer coach more respected than Bruce Arena. If U.S. soccer is going to become competitive within the next eight years, Arena has to be running the show. Five championships at the University of Virginia and two more in the MLS are the only entries anybody needs to see on his resume. "I'll be disappointed because of all he's meant to D.C. United," Harkes said of Arena's impending departure. "He'll be missed in the league. But if he can do with the national team what he's done here ..."

    Arena will wind up as a legend, and two championship seasons in the MLS – plus a third run to the title game – will have been the launching pad for a larger mission.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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