There were times this season when Roy Lassiter's dark thoughts, about his profound scoring slump and the rumors of an imminent trade, would follow him onto the field and shadow the D.C. United forward as tightly as one of those opposing defenders he used to beat so effortlessly. Both of them, the darkness and the defense, seemed to be gaining ground.
But that midseason snapshot of Lassiter, troubled and brooding, has given way to a far different image as United heads into Sunday's MLS championship game against the Los Angeles Galaxy at Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium: Lassiter's back to the goal, his body nearly horizontal, both feet off the ground, the ball headed past a frozen goalkeeper.
There were no dark thoughts in Lassiter's head at that point, as his second goal of the game--on a memorable, absurdly picturesque bicycle kick--found the back of the net in United's 4-0 victory Saturday over the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference finals' deciding Game 3.
"I had no other play at that point," Lassiter said, re-living the moment when his return to form seemed complete. "The opportunity was there. You just do it. Goal scorers don't think. They react."
But Lassiter seemed to be doing more thinking than reacting during a long, difficult stretch this season, when he was not much of a goal scorer. He went five games without a goal, an eternity by the standards of the league's all-time leading goal scorer. He scored once in a span of eight games, four times in a span of 20.
Although he still tied Dallas's Jason Kreis and Columbus's Stern John for the league lead with 18 goals, Lassiter was being spoken of, at age 30, as a washed-up player, a goal scorer who could no longer score.
It was during this time, probably not by coincidence, word surfaced that Lassiter likely would be the "future considerations" headed to the Miami Fusion to complete the trade in which United acquired John Maessner and Chris Albright for Brian Kamler. Officially, both teams will say only that the Fusion will receive a prominent United player after the season. Many observers still believe it will be Lassiter.
"After I first heard about it, at the all-star break, I didn't like it," Lassiter said. "At that point I had scored 15 goals in 16 games. In what country do they think about trading a player who does that? It was kind of weird. You wonder if the right people are making the right decisions."
"There are always going to be rumors," United Coach Thomas Rongen said. "That's the nature of the beast. Because of salary cap issues, we will have to trade one or two big names every year."
Rongen didn't worry about Lassiter's lack of scoring--Rongen compares it to a .300 hitter in baseball who goes through an 0-for-15 slump. But when the frustration over the scoring drought and the trade rumors began to show in Lassiter's demeanor and impact the rest of the team, Rongen spoke to him about it.
"He's very upset if he doesn't score, but that's a good trait," Rongen said. "Every good goal scorer I've played with or coached has been somewhat selfish. You have to be [selfish] to be able to do what they do. On the other hand, Roy at times showed that a little too much.
"After we talked about it he realized that his body language sometimes got translated by players around him and the coaching staff as being negative. To his credit, he fixed it. Now the players embrace him. That's great. He was willing to change."
Lassiter said: "I wasn't battling with [the scoring drought]. I just kept playing hard. If I worked hard, I knew the goals were going to come. And when they start, they're going to come in bunches. . . . I'm a positive person. I don't want to bring negativity to the field and instill that in my teammates."
Lassiter, more of a closer than a creator, always has been somebody who needed help from his teammates--from his days at North Carolina State and throughout a pro career that took him from Costa Rica to Italy to the Tampa Bay Mutiny and, finally, in April 1998, to United in a trade for Roy Wegerle. But while it is true that there were stretches when Lassiter wasn't receiving many good scoring chances, on many occasions he simply missed.
But United's recent playoff series against Columbus may have been the start of another scoring binge for Lassiter--the kind he has produced often in his four MLS seasons, during which he has scored 73 goals (to go with 25 assists) in 115 regular season games. He scored United's goal in a 5-1 loss in Game 2, which placed United on the brink of elimination.
Then came Saturday, when he scored once in the first half on a deft, left-footed kick past goalkeeper Mark Dougherty, then again on the spectacular bicycle kick--something Lassiter said he never had successfully executed in competition before Saturday.
"I was even surprised myself that I did it," Lassiter said. "It really stunned Dougherty. He couldn't even dive for it."
So for now, the fact that this might be his final week with United appears to be the furthest thing from Lassiter's mind--even if in reality it is always there, lurking, ready to spring forward when Lassiter lets the dark thoughts in, such as those times when an interviewer brings it up.
"It would be a loss if I got traded," he said, not specifying whether the loss would be his or the team's. "I'm here to score goals, and that's what I've done. I've been the top goal scorer both my years here. I would rather them give me a reason to move my family. That doesn't benefit me. I can't play for too many teams in this league. Not every team has good wingers and a good midfielder.
"I'm praying it doesn't happen. I don't want to go anywhere else. I'm fine right here."