The Five Billion Person Party

Notes of a wandering American soccer fan

When DC United won big games

Posted by steigs on December 14, 2007

As a follow-up to the previous post, here’s a story of the good old days for us DC United fans, and perhaps my personal favorite “back in the day” game I saw at RFK:

It was the deciding game of the 1999 Eastern Conference finals with the winner to play in the MLS Cup, the championship game.  DC United versus the Columbus Crew at RFK.  It was, though we didn=t know it then, the last gasps of the founding dynasty.

What made it so sweet was in part that hint of mortality.  DC United had lost in the MLS Cup the previous season and Bruce Arena had left to take over the US national team.  United had played well enough in the 1999 regular season, though.  At this point, the ever-shifting MLS playoff structure involved rounds of best of three games series before the one-off neutral site championship game. 

It was also sweet because it was the third year in a row that Columbus and United had met up in the play-offs.  United had won the previous two years.  There was a rivalry developing, which gave it an edge.  Columbus had a rising team with two strong forwards, American Brian McBride and the wonderfully named Stern John of Trinidad. 

The first game went to DC United, 2-1.  So far, so good.  But then in the second game, in Columbus, the Crew had struck back.  And how B they beat United 5-1!  Uh oh.  We=d failed in the final the year before.  Would we now fail in the semi-final this year?  Had the decline become that real?  Was Columbus overtaking us?

Game 3 at RFK.  A brilliant November Saturday afternoon.  One of those sunny crisp days that makes most sports fans think of college football.  With the MLS Cup scheduled for Foxboro, it was the last DC United home game of the season.  The lower bowl of RFK was packed and there were some sections busy on the top level.  It was a full house, 21,000 in attendance.

One sliver of the upper bowl was occupied by die-hard Crew fans with banners and drums.  Before the game they began singing and chanting.  Hey!  This is our place, not yours!  Who did they think they were?  We were DC United, the kings of the MLS.  Right?   

The Crew fans got many United fans B beyond the normal standing sections of the Screaming Eagles and Barra Brava B going.  As a result, the crowd was chanting and drumming from the start.  The atmosphere was electric.  The adrenalin was pumping.

As it happened, the Crew fans would have been better off staying in Ohio.  The initial few minutes were even and physical.  Then DC United took command.  El Diablo was running the midfield, dropping his long passes all over the place to the tricky Moreno and the fleet Lassiter.  The amazing thing was the ball possession.  As the game wore on, it seemed like Columbus simply couldn=t get the ball, as if DC United were playing keep-away. 

It was a joy to watch.  The goals started coming.  The first was only 17 minutes in.  It was a classic Moreno to Etcheverry to Moreno move, a give and go in the box with Moreno putting it away.  1-0, United.  Across the way, the Screaming Eagles and the Barra Brava had the RFK stands bouncing up and down.

The second goal was one of that United team=s other standard types, a gorgeous long ball from Etcheverry in the United half to the speeding Lassiter, who scored on the fly.  2-0, United, still in the first half.  At this point, the Crew knew they were in trouble.  DC United were feeling the flow and holding the ball for long stretches of time.

The third goal came relatively early in the second half and it was a gem.  Etcheverry earned his third assist, this time on a free kick into the box that Moreno headed on B and then Lassiter converted with a bicycle kick!  3-0, United, after 55 minutes. 

The Crew fans in the upper deck fell silent.  DC United didn=t let up.  They kept the possession and the pressure up.  This was the lion king contemptuously swatting away a cub, the master reclaiming his authority.  They weren=t just DC United of old B they seemed even better.  And the doubts beforehand made it all the sweeter.  We fans has the oles going.  It was a party now, not a contest.

El Diablo, deservedly, got the dessert on our rich feast of soccer.  With only a few minutes left, he rifled a free-kick into the net and got a goal of his own, after setting up the other three.  Ole!  The goals were a variety pack of classic DC United scores, including one each of the give and go, long bomb, and an El Diablo free kick, as if to demonstrate their full range.

4-0 was the final.  It could have been 6-0 more easily than it could have been 2-1.  Off the momentum of that dominant performance, United went on to beat the LA Galaxy (again) in the MLS Cup for their third title in four years.  We were still the best.

The following year, after further off-season player losses, the team simply fell apart, not even making the playoffs.  But I held onto that afternoon of greatness, and kept going back to RFK hoping it would reappear someday.  And, finally, I was rewarded with another championship run in 2004, complete with a dramatic epic conference final at RFK.  And maybe there=s another coming next year too.

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