Sunday's championship game between D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy at Foxboro Stadium may be the best thing to happen to Major League Soccer in an otherwise troubling year.
The league's first commissioner was fired. Its deputy commissioner was dismissed. Attendance dipped again. The highest profile American, Alexi Lalas, retired at age 29. Two top scorers left for the English League last week.
But on the final day of a grueling eight-month season, MLS puts its best foot forward with a title match between the league's most accomplished and entertaining teams. Attendance at this neutral site could approach 50,000, including several thousand fans from the Washington area. According to United sources, the crowd also will include Jonathan Ledecky, the Washington Capitals' minority owner who has emerged as the leading candidate to purchase United's operating rights.
"These are the two teams this year that have set the standard for the league and played the best soccer," Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid said. "It's going to be an offensive game . . . and it's going to be a game that people are going to remember for a long, long time."
United has advanced to the final in each of MLS's four seasons, but its hunger for the title seems more intense this year after being upset by an expansion team, the Chicago Fire, in the 1998 championship game at the Rose Bowl.
This finale features United's sensational South Americans (Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno) against the Galaxy's dazzling Central Americans (Carlos Hermosillo, Mauricio Cienfuegos and Roy Myers); United's 10 former University of Virginia players against the Galaxy's eight ex-UCLA standouts; United's MLS-best scoring attack against the Galaxy's league-leading defense.
"It's been a long season and this is the pinnacle," D.C. Coach Thomas Rongen said. "It's a sexy final. It's an appropriate final."
Unlike each of the previous three seasons, when a surprise team landed in the title game, a United-Galaxy final was perfectly predictable. It also has provided a flashback to the inaugural championship in 1996 when the same teams met at the same stadium. The Galaxy veterans have been talking about redemption for that game, a 3-2 defeat in which Los Angeles lost a two-goal lead in the final 17 minutes of regulation and then was beaten by Eddie Pope's header four minutes into sudden-death overtime.
Heavy rain and gusty winds played a major part in 1996, and field conditions could affect Sunday's match as well. When United players and coaches arrived at the stadium today for a light workout, they were disappointed to find a field badly scarred by last Monday night's NFL game between the Patriots and Jets.
"It's a little bit of a shame," Rongen said of the bumpy surface. "We're going to have to adjust."
United is slightly favored, based on its big-game experience and near-flawless display during a 4-0 rout of Columbus last weekend in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals. D.C. also has Etcheverry, who had a goal and three assists a week ago in perhaps the finest performance of his MLS career.
"If we have the same mentality like the last game, we have a good chance to win this game," United's captain and playmaker said. "We have to concentrate 90 minutes to win the championship. I have a good feeling. I am anxious to play tomorrow."
United's attack, which averages more than two goals per game, poses a serious threat to a Los Angeles defense that yielded an average of 0.91 goals during the regular season and registered 11 shutouts. The Galaxy's backfield boasts the MLS goalkeeper and defender of the year--Kevin Hartman and Robin Fraser, respectively--and U.S. World Cup veteran Paul Caligiuri.
"From minute one until the end of the game, those guys are going to be a threat," Caligiuri said. "We have to force [Etcheverry] to make decisions quicker than he's really comfortable making them. . . . It's exciting. We have quality defenders and for us, it's a great challenge."
MLS Note: Players from the two finalists make up more than half of the all-league team, which was announced this evening. Etcheverry, who became the only player to be named four times, was joined by teammates Moreno and Jeff Agoos. The Galaxy is represented by Cienfuegos, Fraser and Hartman. The rest of the squad is forward Jason Kreis of Dallas; midfielders Steve Ralston (Tampa Bay), Eddie Lewis (San Jose) and Chris Armas (Chicago); and defender Lubos Kubik of Chicago.