A Nov. 15 article on D.C. United incorrectly said Peter Nowak is Major League Soccer's first former player to coach a team to a championship. Frank Yallop was the first. (Published 11/17/04)
Four seasons of frustration for the most decorated franchise in the history of Major League Soccer evaporated on a manicured pitch of grass this afternoon. Four seasons of failing to recapture the dominance D.C. United displayed during the league's infancy ended in unbridled celebration, champagne and the stench of victory cigars.
United claimed its fourth championship in the league's nine years with a 3-2 victory over the Kansas City Wizards on Sunday. In front of their shirtless, painted and howling fan clubs, including the Barra Brava -- loosely translated as "the Crazy Ones" -- United's players erased their four straight losing seasons and raised the championship trophy, returning it to Washington for the first time since 1999.
As bedrock Washington franchises go, there were not many parallels to be drawn between the city's representatives in football and futbol on Sunday. The Washington Redskins were foundering at FedEx Field during a loss that was yet another reminder that the last time the Redskins lorded over their sport was 12 years ago. That was four years before United began its run of three titles in four years in 1996.
Indeed, United has been a rarity among Washington's pro franchises. The Wizards have not won an NBA title under that name, although the Bullets won one. And the Capitals are still looking for their first Stanley Cup.
United earned this championship dramatically, winning despite the fact that Kansas City had a man advantage for the last 32 minutes. United was penalized when a red card, which results in an automatic ejection, was issued to defender Dema Kovalenko, who used his hand as he protected the goal line.
"This is the most special one for me," said midfielder Ben Olsen in a cramped and jubilant locker room afterward. "It became almost commonplace, where we were winning all the time. To have that feeling taken away, to sit for more than three years and nothing happens, it just makes you explode."
Riding an unprecedented scoring flurry with three goals in seven minutes in the first half, United withstood a blistering Kansas City attack during the final 45 minutes to hold on before 25,797 at the Home Depot Center. Alecko Eskandarian, a struggling rookie out of the University of Virginia a year ago, became the second player in MLS Cup history to score twice in the same game, erasing a 1-0 Kansas City lead in four lightning-quick minutes, and won the most valuable player award.
The United played with the same passion and fury of their first-year taskmaster Peter Nowak, whose tendency to mix it up with players in practice was common. Nowak, who played with the Chicago Fire in 1998 when it beat United for the MLS Cup, became the league's first former player to coach a team to a championship.
"Even after [the] first goal, I never have a doubt we are going to win this game," said Nowak, the Polish-born coach, in halting English. "Personally, this was [an] amazing year. They trust my way, they share my vision."
United's victory seemed assured when Eskandarian put on a brilliant offensive display in the first half. His back to the goal, he received the ball at the top of the arc and somehow turned Wizards defender Nick Garcia, touching the ball twice before pocketing a rocket past goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi. His second goal came on a lazy throw-in pass by Kansas City. Eskandarian clearly touched the ball with his arm while knocking it down and gaining control, but no call was made as he deposited the ball in the left corner.
Three minutes later, United got the benefit of an own goal when a defender tried to get to the ball before Eskandarian in front of the net. But D.C. United struggled from then on.
Earnie Stewart was penalized with a yellow card, or warning, for aggressively fouling a Kansas City player. Moments later, 13 minutes into the second half, the United was down a man after Kovalenko became the first player in MLS Cup history to be hit with a red card.
Kovalenko was ejected after using his hand to thwart a Kansas City goal. It led to a penalty kick by Josh Wolff and a new game at 3-2. Worse for United, Eskandarian began cramping up and had to leave the match minutes later. In his place came a darting Freddy Adu onto the field, amid a chorus of cheers and blaring air horns.
The 15-year-old phenom had a few nice runs, including a three-quarter field one-on-four rush with a few minutes of regulation time remaining that brought the masses to their feet. But like his intelligent, clock-killing teammates, he played more safe than sorry as the Wizards grew more desperate during six minutes of extra time.
When the horn sounded, everyone from Adu to Jaime Moreno, the lone remaining player from the 1996 title team, converged in the center of the field. They eventually made their way to their fans behind the east goal and into the locker room, where they chanted "Ole! Ole!" long and hard.
"We had some hard times when we could have fallen apart this summer," Olsen said, sitting shirtless because his jersey had been drenched by sparkling wine. "The coaches were going at the players, the players were going at the coaches. There were a lot of heart-to-heart meetings. All of that.
"And now, we're sitting here, it's all worth it. The young guys. The old guys. Every nationality and personality, we got it all. Now we just need to go get some rings, wear that big fat bling-bling around and celebrate. We'll probably get nasty for a couple weeks."