Just when it appeared Major League Soccer finally might hold a championship game without D.C. United, the two-time champions issued a resounding reminder that their run of excellence is far from over.
The 4-0 victory over the Columbus Crew Saturday at RFK Stadium was United's finest performance since upsetting fabled Brazilian club Vasco da Gama in an international competition nearly a year ago. This triumph came just six days after one of the worst defeats in its four-year history, a 5-1 embarrassment that evened the best-of-three Eastern Conference finals at a game apiece and prompted questions about United's ability to return to the title match.
"We wanted to get back there. We got there," Coach Thomas Rongen said. "The job is not done. We want the big one."
The final obstacle comes Sunday when United faces the Los Angeles Galaxy in MLS Cup '99 at Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium. The teams split the regular season series, with the Galaxy winning, 2-1, at RFK on a disputed goal with six seconds left and United winning, 2-0, at the Rose Bowl despite missing seven starters.
Los Angeles and D.C. are the winningest teams in MLS's regular season history. They will reprise their memorable 1996 match, won by United, 3-2, on Eddie Pope's goal in sudden-death overtime in Foxboro.
"It's going to be a great game," Crew Coach Tom Fitzgerald said. "L.A. is a very, very good counterattacking team and D.C. is the standard. They [keep] possession, they counterattack, they have speed and they're a very, very smart team. If you don't buy a ticket to that game, you're missing a treat."
For some time, there was some doubt whether United would make it. Three of its four starting defenders were battling injuries last week, its leading scorer was trying to shake out of a slump and the entire team was wondering how it would slow down Columbus's vaunted attack.
By early Saturday evening, as United players danced around the field and saluted a boisterous crowd of more than 21,000, those concerns had been put to rest.
Bolivian midfielder Marco Etcheverry probably won't win a second straight MLS most valuable player award this year, but with a goal and three assists in Game 3 he showed that he remains MLS's best player. Perhaps Columbus's biggest mistake building up to Saturday's game was making critical comments about United and boastful remarks about the Game 2 rout.
"Marco was really hurt by some of the comments after the second game," Rongen said. "When Marco starts talking about comments made in the Columbus newspaper, it means he wants some vindication. He was very charged throughout the whole week."
That energy was shared by forward Roy Lassiter, MLS's all-time leading scorer, who had scored just five goals in about 4 1/2 months. Lassiter's first goal Saturday, which made it 2-0, was executed in a manner that he had failed on many times this year--a quickly developing sequence that resulted in a one-on-one situation with the goalkeeper. His second goal--a spectacular bicycle kick in front of the net--was pure artistry. He also had three other chances to complete a hat trick.
United's greatest concern prior to Saturday was its defense--not only because of the five goals it allowed in Game 2, but also because Pope (sprained ankle), Carlos Llamosa (sprained knee) and Diego Sonora (sore calf) were questionable.
By Saturday, however, Pope and Llamosa were ready to play, and they helped limit Columbus to two shots on goal--both in the final two minutes--and quieted the dangerous striking duo of Stern John and Brian McBride. Sonora did not play but his replacement, Carey Talley, rebounded from a miserable performance the previous week.
"We matched their intensity and maybe even doubled it," Talley said. "We set the tone at the start, things started to open up for us and eventually they broke down pretty easily. . . . This was a big test of our character, and we showed them what we can do. We wanted to get back to the championship game, and that's where we are going now. This is exactly where we want to be."
MLS Notes: Before Saturday, about 30,000 tickets had been sold for the championship game at 58,000-seat Foxboro Stadium.
MLS CUP '99
Who: D.C. United (27-10) vs. Los Angeles Galaxy (24-13).
When: Sunday, 1:30 p.m.
Where: Foxboro Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.
TV: WJLA-7, WMAR-2.
Radio: WACA-1540 (Spanish).
Tickets: $19, $39, $79; Available from TicketMaster.