When referee Tim Weyland's whistle sounded for a final time today, D.C. United's players and coaches raced around Foxboro Stadium as if they had won a championship for the first time. It was actually their third title in Major League Soccer's four-year existence, but this one seemed to mean so much more because of last year's disappointment in the title game.
United's eight-month quest to regain the trophy came to a gratifying end with a 2-0 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy before 44,910 spectators, including several thousand clad in D.C.'s red and black colors who made the trip from the Washington area.
"The first time we won it was probably the easiest, but to do this two or three times, it's truly incredible," defender Jeff Agoos said. "Hopefully we'll look back on this in 30 or 40 years, think about what we did and see how special it was."
This one didn't have the drama of the 1996 championship, nor the artistry of the 1997 conquest. United (28-10) won today with two first-half goals, both the result of defensive errors by the Galaxy (24-14), and a gritty defensive effort that didn't yield a shot on goal in the second half.
One year after a 2-0 loss to Chicago in the championship game, the result today was another celebration and a coronation as MLS's first and only dynasty.
"I need more fingers for the rings," captain Marco Etcheverry said. "There are moments in life that cannot be described. We lost last year and I was waiting for November 21 for a very long time. I am very happy."
D.C. benefited from an injury in the early moments to the Galaxy's Robin Fraser, the MLS defensive player of the year, who after being shoved from behind by United's Roy Lassiter crashed to the hard turf and broke his left clavicle. To the dismay of the Galaxy, no foul was called.
"It's amazing to me that an athlete like Robin fell down on his own--no foul, no nothing," Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid said. The Galaxy also was upset when Weyland didn't award a penalty kick after Cobi Jones was knocked down in the box late in the half.
Los Angeles had some prime scoring opportunities in the first half, but as the game wore on, the Galaxy lost its cohesiveness and wasn't much of a threat.
Defensive midfielder Richie Williams blanketed Galaxy playmaker Mauricio Cienfuegos, who didn't receive any support from midfielders Clint Mathis and Roy Myers. United central defenders Eddie Pope and Carlos Llamosa quieted forwards Carlos Hermosillo and Jones, and the Galaxy failed in its attempts to control the flanks.
"D.C. United is not afraid to put their arms on people and play physical," Schmid said. "We made a couple of mistakes and gave them some goals. I felt we had our opportunities and had our chances to score. . . . It was a disappointing day."
It was disappointing from almost the start for the Galaxy, which also lost in the 1996 final here to United. After Fraser's departure, United went ahead in the 19th minute when Etcheverry's long throw-in was poorly headed by Fraser's replacement, Steve Jolley. The ball dropped in front of Lassiter, whose four-yard bid was saved by goalkeeper Kevin Hartman. Galaxy defender Paul Caligiuri failed to clear the ball, and Jaime Moreno poked it easily past the flailing Hartman for a 1-0 lead.
Los Angeles nearly tied it in the 32nd minute, but Danny Pena's header struck the left post, then bounced off United's John Maessner toward the goal. Williams, however, was standing on the goal line and prevented the ball from going into the net.
Hartman made a spectacular save on Agoos's 22-yard blast, but with time running out in the half, MLS's goalkeeper of the year botched a routine play. The ball was passed back to him by a teammate, but Hartman appeared to get rattled by a hard-charging Lassiter. He escaped his first pursuer, but with Moreno also applying pressure, Hartman miskicked the ball directly to Ben Olsen for a clear shot at an unoccupied net from about 25 yards.
"The ball came to my feet and I really couldn't mess that one up," said Olsen, who was voted the game's most valuable player.
United was more than happy to accept the Galaxy's gifts because it couldn't generate much on its own on a field that is a few yards narrower than RFK Stadium's and was in poor condition following the NFL game between the New England Patriots and New York Jets last Monday night.
"This was worse than a high school football field," Agoos said. "It definitely had an impact on the game."
The rest was left to United's defense, which put together its second strong performance in a row after a 5-1 loss to Columbus in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals. Only a few nasty confrontations, including one in front of the United bench that involved Coach Thomas Rongen, disrupted the final 15 minutes.
"This was our quest all season long," Williams said. "We wanted to show that we're still the best team in this league, and now we have the championship trophy to show it. It's pretty incredible what this team has accomplished the last four years."