There exists the notion in many quarters that Major League Soccer should spread its wealth, legislate and manipulate if necessary to ensure there are several great teams to show off. The theory is that parity is preferable to monopoly.
It's a bad theory.
Perhaps the most exciting thing in professional sports is a dynasty, and D.C. United is one. Four years, four times in the championship game, three times the champ. Okay, that may not be the '50s Yankees or the '60s Celtics, but in these here-today-gone-tomorrow times, that's a dynasty. And MLS, whether it knows it or not, is lucky to have one. The league might not even be worthy of the team. By virtue of a 2-0 victory over Los Angeles Sunday, D.C. United once again is MLS champ and the face of professional soccer in America.
"Dynasties equate to quality, not weakness. Dynasties are great," said Bruce Arena, the team's first coach, who made an appearance in the victorious locker room. "The greatest thing it does, perhaps, is make everybody else in the league get better. This is still a new league that needs credibility and quality. The league's job should not be to interfere with D.C. United. You know what the league should be doing? Saying, 'Boys, it's time to catch up.' "
That's easier said than done. United can win in so many ways. Its stars are great. It has young guys who are monster talents but can't crack the lineup. It can go on an offensive assault. But it can also shut down your best playmaker--as was the case against Los Angeles--get on top by a couple of goals and just smother you. D.C. United has got it all, it does it all. The new MLS commissioner, Don Garber, called United "a recognizable brand. Overseas, people know them. They look good, they play well, they've got great stars." And in the next breath, Garber said that while the league appreciates United, it would "love some balance."
There was none here Sunday. With six minutes left in the match with the Galaxy, league officials decided to go ahead and announce that the MVP of the championship game was United's Ben Olsen.
Asked immediately after the victory why this team is so much better than the rest of the league, Coach Thomas Rongen said such a discussion would take too long. Then, he paused and said, "Foundation, infrastructure, facilities, attitude."
Ah, attitude. There was plenty of it on display as the 45th minute turned to injury time before intermission. L.A.'s Steve Jolley played the ball back to his goalkeeper, Kevin Hartman. It was a routine play, the kind you see a half-dozen times on both sides in a game. Usually, you're not going to see an opposing forward chase back and get in the goaltender's face. But United's Roy Lassiter did. He took a roundhouse kick at the ball (and whiffed), mostly for effect, and it certainly did affect Hartman.
But that made Hartman make an extra move, at which time he probably saw United's Jaime Moreno coming toward him. Now completely bothered, Hartman stubbed his toe trying to pass to a teammate, and sent an errant kick to Olsen, who scored into an empty net for a 2-0 lead.
Pure attitude. There was no real scoring chance, no quality opportunity--just Lassiter and then Moreno acting on little more than a dare. Rattle the other guy, see if his nerves are shaky. Make something happen when another team would see nothing. Ballgame. You think United was going to give up a two-goal lead with the Cup waiting in the wings?
Asked what happened, Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid said: "Hartman just misplayed the ball . . . a couple of times."
That doesn't mean the game was easy, or that United didn't catch its share of breaks. Lassiter should have been yellow-carded, at the very least, for shoving Robin Fraser early in the game, but no foul was called. Fraser, the league's top defenseman, broke his left clavicle on the play, which was a huge blow to his team.
Los Angeles had as many scoring chances as D.C. did in the first half. But L.A. didn't score. D.C. did. United vowed last year when it lost to Chicago in the Rose Bowl that such a thing wouldn't happen again. It didn't. "We said after losing last season, 'Look, it's not a dynasty. We're not champs any more,' " star defender Eddie Pope said. "We were disappointed for a year."
Even as they celebrated, the players knew a couple of key team members probably will be lost because of the league's salary cap, and because the team owes Miami a player, and on and on. It hasn't stopped since 1996. Assistant coach Bob Bradley left for a head coaching job in Chicago. Raul Diaz Arce had to be traded because of the salary cap, as was John Harkes. Tony Sanneh, a free agent, left for Germany. And the biggest blow of all was losing Arena, probably the best soccer coach at any level on the continent, who left after last year's MLS Cup to coach the U.S. national team.
"Those are just incredible losses," Pope said. "Tony, Raul, John--those are huge losses. Bruce, all by himself, is a huge loss. I remember driving home one day thinking, 'Why do we have to lose so much?' I got depressed."
But the hiring of Rongen was a perfect fit. And the young players were as good as Arena and General Manager Kevin Payne thought they would be, maybe better. It was an especially sweet afternoon and evening for Payne, who has been perfect on all the big decisions. More than two years ago, he felt the league rules were making it especially difficult for his team, even unfairly so. But with this third championship in four years, Payne said he found great satisfaction at winning anyway, "in spite of the league's rules, and not just by outspending."
He continued: "There is a sentiment in the league that we should have parity, that it's not good for us to continue to win like this. I don't like that you can manipulate the rules to create evenness."
Payne thought about the difficulty of staying on top of the mountain and said: "It's really hard to find ways to continue to excel when you're not chasing something. But they find ways to push themselves. There's nobody in America they're chasing. It's just them."