A half hour after MLS Cup '97 was over, the spectators still
hadn't left. All through the sold-out stands of Washington's RFK
Stadium stood gatherings of men and women born in another
America. The fans--tens of thousands of them, outnumbering the
Anglos in attendance--were from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador,
Bolivia, Colombia, many of them recent immigrants clinging to
the pastime of their homelands. They sang in Spanish for their
triumphant club, D.C. United, blew whistles and banged drums.
Their dark hair was soaked from a driving rain that nearly
matched the game in its intensity. Major League Soccer had
concluded its second season. The league still has had only one
champion. The most popular song in Washington on Sunday night
had the simplest lyrics: !Ole, D.C., ole, ole!
This year there was a new victim for United in the title match,
the Colorado Rapids. Colorado played gamely before bowing 2-1,
but it had two distinct geographic disadvantages. First, the
Rapids were playing on United's home field. Second, they started
only one foreign player, Mexican midfielder David Patino. It's
true that U.S. soccer improves yearly, but taking the field with
so much domestic talent? Is there a Spanish word for chutzpah?
Among the United 11 were four Latinos from countries in which
soccer is handed down from generation to generation, along with
the family Bible. In the back was Carlos Llamosa, a central
defender from Colombia. Up front was the celebrated Magic
Triangle: midfielder Marco Etcheverry of Bolivia passing to
forwards Raul Diaz Arce of El Salvador and Jaime Moreno, a
fellow Bolivian and MLS's leading goal scorer. In the 37th
minute some crafty decoy work by Diaz Arce created the game's
first goal. Though he was in superb position to score, he let a
cross from the right flank roll by him to Moreno, who is a
curious sight, with his bleached-blond hair and black eyebrows.
His footwork, however, is classically beautiful. Moreno slipped
past a defender, didn't attempt a shot when everybody thought he
would and then skipped home a tumbling-bumbling 12-yarder under
diving goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann.
Rapids coach Glenn (Mooch) Myernick knew that his team was
overmatched going into the MLS Cup, so he tried to use the
talent deficit to his advantage. Colorado's 14-18 record during
the regular season was the third worst in the league. (The MLS
playoffs are an equal-opportunity affair; of the 10 teams, eight
make the playoffs.) United, on the other hand, had put up the
best mark, 21-11, even though coach Bruce Arena was never able
to start the same lineup twice.
The night before the championship game, more than 700 members of
the soccer community, from average fans to high functionaries,
gathered at Union Station for a swanky MLS awards dinner. The
highlight of the evening was seeing Mooch, with his crooked nose
and shiny head, strutting around in a snug-fitting tuxedo,
looking for the hors d'oeuvres guy. What he found was
motivation. No Rapids player won an award, while United players
were posing for pictures all night long, trophies in hand.
On Colorado's locker room wall before Sunday's game, Myernick
taped up pictures of the previous night's winners. Then he
turned off the lights, gathered his players around a TV and had
them watch a tape of all 50 goals the Rapids scored this year.
He never mentioned United. Over in the home clubhouse the D.C.
players sat in front of their lockers, still and silent. Several
of them were reading game programs. "I like 'em like this," said
Arena. "Loose, but not too loose. Up, but not too up."
Out on the field, the league's commissioner, Doug Logan, stood
under an umbrella, the cuffs of his pin-striped trousers soaking
up water as he remembered the inaugural title match, in which
United defeated the Los Angeles Galaxy 3-2 in a monsoon at
Foxboro Stadium. Last year there were 20,000 empty seats. This
year 57,431 dripping souls packed RFK, oblivious to the puddles
in which they stood. They arrived before the national anthem and
stayed after the conclusion of the awards ceremony as the rain
poured down, hard and cold, for more than two hours. The fans
stood and watched and sang and whistled. Arena marveled at the
intensity of United's Spanish-speaking supporters. "They're the
soul of our team," he said.
Still, at halftime the D.C. lead was just 1-0. Myernick began
his calm address to his players with: "First of all, what a
great effort." He ended it with: "Whatever you do, don't quit."
It was a great effort, and his team never quit. Arena said
afterward that the Rapids reflected the personality of Myernick,
who is a friend. "They're bastards," Arena said. "They're
D.C. doubled its lead in the 68th minute on a goal off the shorn
head of midfielder Tony Sanneh, but United could not put the
match away. The final 20 minutes of the game was a blur of rain
and drumbeats and Spanish chants and, in the 71st minute, a
magnificent but futile bicycle kick by Colorado defender Marcelo
Balboa. The Rapids' goal came with 16 minutes to go, a
spectacular, unreachable bullet past United keeper Scott Garlick
off the foot of a substitute midfielder, Adrian Paz, who is from
Uruguay. Late in the game Balboa did a little slam dance with
5'5" midfielder Richie Williams of D.C., which ended with
Williams sprawled on the grass. Balboa did not reach over to
pick him up. Instead he dropped a ball on his chest.
In the end heart wasn't enough for Colorado. Position for
position United had the better matchup 11 times, and D.C. was
led by a coach who had won before. After the game the Salvadoran
fans flocked to Diaz Arce. The Bolivian fans waited for
Etcheverry and Moreno, who was named the game's Most Valuable
Player. When a crowd massed on the north side of the stadium to
salute the United players, the railing gave way. Some 50 people
were treated by medical staff at the site for cuts and bruises,
and two fans were taken to a hospital with minor injuries.
A couple from Ecuador, Nora and Guido Bahamonda, shook hands
with any player they could. Later they rode the Metro home to
Reston, Va., tired, wet, quiet. "We haven't seen our son in six
years," said Nora, a housekeeper by day, a student at Georgetown
at night. "Now he is nine. We are trying to get him into this
country. He loves soccer. This game reminds us of home. It fills
us with satisfaction."
The sleek electric subway hummed along under the nation's
capital. Guido closed his eyes, drumbeats and song still ringing
in his ears.