Pope Puts United at Head of the Class
By Steven Goff
FOXBORO, Mass., Oct. 20-D.C. United's inaugural season was slipping and sliding toward a disappointing end. The deficit was two goals, time was ticking away, and the Foxboro Stadium playing surface had turned into a muddy bog from the nor'easter that had punished the region all day.
But in an improbable finish that American professional leagues with decades of history surely would envy, United charged back to tie the Major League Soccer championship match in regulation, then won it on 22-year-old defender Eddie Pope's header in the fourth minute of sudden-death overtime for a 3-2 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy.
An infant season that began with the United losing six of seven games concluded with players and coaches, drenched to the bone, dancing deliriously and screaming for all of New England to hear. At the moment Pope's header settled into the net, the 54-degree temperature, the 30- to 50-mph winds and the four inches of rain that had fallen didn't seem to matter a bit.
"We became a real team," Coach Bruce Arena said. "We started out in miserable shape [this season]. People questioned a lot of things. They questioned our character, and you saw what kind of character and heart this team has. They deserve to be champions in this league."
Despite the horrible conditions, 34,643 spectators-including several thousand Washington area United supporters who made the long drive with dozens of homemade banners and El Salvadoran and Bolivian flags in hand-arrived in gear more apt for mountain climbing and roared throughout the match. (There were 7,700 no-shows.)
What they and a national TV audience witnessed was the crowning moment of MLS's long-anticipated birth.
Eduardo Hurtado scored in the fifth minute and Chris Armas struck in the 56th minute to give the Galaxy a 2-0 lead, seemingly insurmountable given the worsening field conditions and the protective shell that Los Angeles used to guard its end.
United-which tested Galaxy goalkeeper Jorge Campos with a few dangerous threats before halftime-couldn't generate much for the first 15 minutes or so of the second half.
But the momentum slowly began to shift, boosted by Arena's decision to insert reserve midfielders Tony Sanneh and Shawn Medved in the 59th and 70th minutes, respectively.
After Raul Diaz Arce, United's leading scorer, missed a clear shot from 12 yards, Sanneh soared into the air to head Marco Etcheverry's long free kick into the right side of the net and cut the deficit to 2-1 in the 73rd minute.
Nine minutes later, it was Medved's turn-and again Etcheverry, the brilliant Bolivian midfielder, was responsible with another free kick.
Etcheverry delivered the ball deep into the box. Campos punched it away, but not out of danger. Medved, an indoor soccer whiz, trapped the ball and had his eight-yard shot blocked by the desperate Campos. The rebound came back to Medved, who this time finished with a crisp, right-footed shot.
"They did something nearly impossible-coming back from 2-0 in a championship game-and I think we blew it," Galaxy defender Robin Fraser said. "It's absolute disbelief. . . . You don't give up a 2-0 lead in a game like this-just total disbelief."
In overtime, United turned to a reliable trick to complete the turnaround. Etcheverry, voted the game's most valuable player, sent a corner kick inside the six-yard box. With the ball bending away from Campos, Pope was in ideal position to firmly head the ball just over Armas, stationed on the goal line, and into the upper left side, igniting a watery celebration on the field and in the stands.
"They never really marked me on it," said Pope, whose two other goals this season-including one against the Galaxy in August at RFK Stadium-also were near-post runs on Etcheverry's corner kicks. "Marco put it right there for me and all I had to do was jump and redirect it. It was incredible. I didn't think I was having the best game, but it turned out great for me."
The 6-foot, 175-pound Pope, a starter on the Arena-coached U.S. Olympic squad this summer, had been burned on the first goal of the match as the 6-3, 200-pound Hurtado beat him to Mauricio Cienfuegos's high cross and stung an eight-yard header past goalie Mark Simpson.
Armas increased the lead early in the second half with a dynamic individual effort, beating three defenders before sending a 16-yarder into the lower left corner.
United, however, never gave up hope.
"I even felt confident that when we were down 2-0 we could get a goal back," Arena said. "We made it a game at the end, we got that second goal and, I'll be honest, I was very confident in overtime."
After a minor Galaxy threat, United took charge. Etcheverry made it possible, Pope made it official.
"We promised a championship to the people of Washington, D.C.," Etcheverry said. "Today we gave it to them. It makes me very happy."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company