More than a few times this season, Thomas Rongen has approached an opposing player to shake hands, only to be solicited. The player discreetly asks if Rongen can, you know, put in a word for him or do something to get him traded to D.C. United.
United is the model professional soccer franchise in America. It's a team whose dominance has been maintained despite player changes and the departure of arguably the best coach at any level in this country. The scoreboard nearing the end of four seasons of MLS play reads: league championship in 1996, league championship in 1997, league runner-up in 1998, InterAmerican Cup champion in 1998, CONCACAF Cup champion in 1998. With four games remaining in the 1999 season, United already has won the Eastern Conference regular season title and is on a 10-game winning streak.
Former United coach Bruce Arena, while now coaching the U.S. men's national team, still lives in Northern Virginia and still follows the most intimate details of the United team he helped build for three years.
"It's not a work-in-progress anymore," he said yesterday. "It's a well-oiled machine. They've separated themselves from the pack this year. My only fear for the team is they haven't been in enough tough games."
That's because it's been a down year for several Eastern Conference teams--particularly the troubled New York/New Jersey MetroStars--and because it's been business as usual for United even though starters and regular reserves have missed a total of 104 games with national team obligations and injuries.
Any notion that there would be slippage under Rongen has been dismissed. "I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about what I was getting into," Rongen said this week. "It's the second-most important coaching job in America after the U.S. national team. But ultimately, it was a no-brainer even though I knew these were huge shoes to fill."
So how has he managed to replace Arena? "By not changing a thing," Rongen said. "I'm Dutch. . . . I'm a pretty democratic guy. I speak four languages and I'm pretty open-minded. I had no problem realizing that you don't try to fix something that ain't broken."
While Arena is apt to use sarcasm and pointed humor to get an important point across, Rongen is much more direct, the players say. Otherwise, "my philosophy is to play an aggressive, attacking style, which is very similar to Bruce's philosophy," Rongen said. Also, their philosophies on practice and training are similar. And if anything wasn't seamless during the transition, Rongen leaned heavily on assistant coach Dave Sarachan, whom Arena hired in 1998.
Of course, coaching issues become less important when you have the best talent in the league at the critical positions, and those players become influential enough to dramatically affect the efficiency of the role players. Yes, United traded star midfielder John Harkes to New England in a move dictated largely by the league's salary cap; midfielder Tony Sanneh to a German team offering huge bucks; and goalkeeper Scott Garlick to Tampa.
But Kevin Payne, United's president and general manager, is batting about .900 on personnel moves. He acquired Diego Sonora, an Argentine who plays right back, and maneuvered to get former University of Virginia star Chris Albright from Miami. And United still had Eddie Pope, Jaime Moreno, Roy Lassiter, young Ben Olsen, Jeff Agoos, Carlos Llamosa, and the wondrous Marco Etcheverry, whom Arena said "once again has established himself as the best player in the league.
And now, every time Payne acquires a new player, such as Sonora or Jason Moore, the player seems to perform better than anybody had dared to dream. Even when United had eight players out of the lineup because of national team duties, the team came up with impressive performances. "We won at New England, 2-0," Payne recalled, "even though we played without six all-stars that day."
It's the magic of winning. Rongen, having played for one great international team (the Netherlands' AFC Ajax) and some not-so-great teams in North America, knows how infectious winning becomes. "We can win every game, regardless of who we have on the field," he said. "The confidence level, which is half the game anyway, is so incredible." Arena says: "It starts with Etcheverry and Moreno. With them, it makes it easier for all the players who have a specific job to do."
When Rongen--who was the 1996 MLS coach of the year for Tampa Bay but was fired by New England last year--arrived in D.C., he found other conditions you rarely see. He found players challenging each other on local golf courses, with some players shooting par. He found pickup basketball games being played, elbows flying. Initially, he said, he was worried "they were expending too much energy before we hit the field." But he knew through 22 years of playing and coaching professionally that a coach couldn't create this kind of atmosphere if he tried. Players show up in bunches at the team's training facility in Herndon on off days to watch international matches beamed in on satellite TV. "Guys are here four, five hours a day," Rongen said. "I've been on a lot of talented teams that didn't have this kind of camaraderie."
United has come to the point where it expects to play not only for its league championship (this year, Nov. 21 in Foxboro, Mass.) but for international championships. That had been unthinkable for a U.S. club team until United built this machine. If United wins the CONCACAF Champions Cup next week, it will receive a berth in FIFA's inaugural World Club Championship in Brazil next January, and $1.5 million for qualifying. Manchester United and Real Madrid already have qualified. Rongen says he has "goose bumps" just thinking about the CONCACAF competition. Asked what he's proudest of this season, he said: "The fact that we've been able to maintain. . . . We've done a good job anticipating what could happen."
It hasn't been an MLS season long on good news. The deputy commissioner, Sunil Gulati, was fired; then the commissioner, Doug Logan, was fired. The New York/New Jersey franchise, which should anchor the league, will have the fewest standings points in MLS's four-year history and has crowds of less than 10,000 coming to Giants Stadium, which used to get 60,000-plus when the Cosmos played there. The MLS championship game is being played so late that it could be 30 degrees and snowing for the game. The season will have lasted from mid-March to late November.
But the league's best team has been exemplary, setting new and loftier goals, doing more for American soccer than anyone expected when this league was formed. "Here, we don't just look at Columbus, Los Angeles, Chicago," Payne said. "We try to measure ourselves against teams around the world. Anything less than winning the cup of whatever competition we're in is not acceptable here."
United's Winning Streak
Date Opponent Score
July 25 at New England 2-0
Aug. 8 Tampa Bay 3-2 (SO)
Aug. 11 at New York/New Jersey 4-1
Aug. 14 Columbus 2-1
Aug. 21 at Miami 3-2 (SO)
Aug. 25 Miami 3-1
Aug. 28 at Colorado 1-0
Sept. 4 Dallas 4-1
Sept. 10 Tampa Bay 2-1
Sept. 18 New York/New Jersey 2-1 (SO)