Mauricio Cienfuegos was seated at a window table in a downtown Kansas City restaurant-bar, oblivious of those around him, eyes glued to the television hanging on the wall in front of him.
It was late in the game, and Washington D.C. United and the Tampa Bay Mutiny were tied, 1-1, in Game 2 of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference playoff finals.
While the rest of the Los Angeles Galaxy players clowned around and joked about the players they were watching, Cienfuegos remained focused on the game itself.
With only eight minutes to play, the United’s Richie Williams sent a cross into the goal area, Raul Diaz Arce ghosted in, seemingly from nowhere, rose and headed the ball into the net.
Cienfuegos sprang to his feet, yelled and punched the air. His countryman and friend had scored the winning goal. It was Diaz Arce’s sixth goal of the playoffs and 29th of the season, and it put Washington into Sunday’s MLS championship game against the Galaxy at Foxboro Stadium near Boston.
What that means is that two of El Salvador’s finest players--midfielder Cienfuegos from San Salvador and forward Diaz Arce from San Miguel--will be playing against each other with the MLS title on the line.
It is one of a handful of “games within the game” Sunday as the MLS season reaches its climax. There is also the collegiate connection.
The Galaxy has four former UCLA Bruins in its starting lineup--winger Cobi Jones, forward Ante Razov, midfielder Jorge Salcedo and defender Greg Vanney.
The United, meanwhile, has nine former Virginia Cavaliers on the roster, including starters Williams, John Harkes, Jeff Agoos and Clint Peay.
That the collegiate rivalry--UCLA and Virginia are traditional NCAA soccer powers--has carried over to the MLS is evident. Any doubts are erased by listening to the Galaxy’s Bruins talk about the United’s Cavaliers. And vice versa.
Then there is the rivalry between two former U.S. Olympic team coaches. Los Angeles’ Lothar Osiander had charge of the American teams in Seoul in 1988 and Barcelona in 1992. Washington’s Bruce Arena led the U.S. team in the Atlanta Games.
Osiander, 56, is a veteran of the soccer wars, having survived the failure of the North American Soccer League and a handful of lesser leagues. Somehow, he has managed to stay involved and employed in the sport despite its ups and downs.
Arena, 45, is a newcomer on the professional scene, the only coach to be plucked from the collegiate ranks when MLS launched its first season. At Virginia, he won five NCAA Division I titles in 18 years, compiling a 295-59-31 record.
Osiander got the Galaxy off to a 12-0 start. The team eventually finished as Western Conference champion with a 19-13 record, then went 4-1 in the playoffs.
Arena got the United off to a 1-6 start, then got things turned around to finish 16-16 and in second place in the Eastern Conference behind Tampa Bay, which it defeated en route to a 4-1 playoff record.
Jones against Harkes in the midfield will be an intriguing battle of U.S. World Cup stars. Osiander against Arena on the sideline will be an interesting tactical contest. But the outcome and the championship will probably depend on which team’s striker is quickest to the draw.
On one side is the Galaxy’s Eduardo Hurtado, with 21 regular-season goals. To win, Washington will have to stop “El Tanque,” who will rely on Cienfuegos to supply the bullets.
On the other side is Diaz Arce, and Osiander and the Los Angeles defense will be be grilling Cienfuegos this week on how to blunt the threat he poses.
“I’m very happy for Raul and happy for the Salvadoran people that they will be represented by both the Galaxy and D.C. United,” Cienfuegos said. “Whoever wins, it will be well deserved.
“It is necessary to watch Diaz Arce closely at the end of the game, the last 10 minutes, because that is when he is most dangerous.”
Osiander has yet to announce which defender will be assigned to Diaz Arce. It might be Robin Fraser, although he may be left to deal with Washington’s other main scoring threat, Bolivian striker Jaime Moreno, or it could be Curt Onalfo.
Onalfo is favored to replace Galaxy team captain Dan Calichman, who is ineligible for the game because of the three yellow cards he has accumulated in the playoffs.
Onalfo, who played for Osiander on the 1992 Olympic team, believes he is up to the the challenge.
“I’m totally prepared, I’ve been prepared all season and fighting for a [starting] spot,” he said. “Surely it’s unfortunate that Dan’s going to be out because he’s been so instrumental for us all season. He’s been a great leader, and he’s played great on the field too. I have tons of respect for him and, to be honest, I’ve learned a lot from him.
“I feel very good. I’m going to use all the experience I have. I think if he [Osiander] puts me in, he’ll go with a sweeper and two marking backs and I imagine he’ll put me on Diaz Arce.
“He’s one of the best goal scorers in the league and a guy who you have to watch in the [penalty] box, but I’m confident that I can mark him.”
Oh, yes, one more thing. Onalfo played his college soccer at Virginia, helping the Cavaliers and Arena win a share of the NCAA title (with Santa Clara) in 1989.
No doubt about it, there will be games within games in Sunday’s game.
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LOS ANGELES GALAXY vs. WASHINGTON D.C. UNITED
* April 20 at RFK Stadium Los Angeles 2, Washington 1
* May 5 at Rose Bowl Los Angeles 3, Washington 1
* Aug. 18 at RFK Stadium Washington 3, Los Angeles 1
L.A. D.C. Record 23-14 20-17 Shootout 5-4 1-4 Home 14-5 14-5 Away 9-9 6-12
L.A. D.C Goals 59 50 Goals per game 1.84 1.56 Shots 440 419 Shots on goal 231 219 Shots per game 13.75 13.09 Goals against per game 1.53 1.56
L.A. D.C Goals 7 11 Goals per game 1.40 2.20 Shots 68 70 Shots on goal 38 39 Shots per game 13.6 14.0 Goals against per game 0.80 1.00
* What: Major League Soccer championship game.
* Who: Los Angeles Galaxy vs. Washington D.C. United
* When: Sunday, 12:30 p.m. PDT.
* Where: Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium
* TV: Channel 7