Galaxy's Title Bid Dissolves in Wane

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was in their hands, but they let it slip away.

In the silence of the Los Angeles Galaxy locker room at Foxboro Stadium on Sunday evening, you could almost hear the emotions.

Anger. Disappointment. Frustration. Bewilderment.

And pain. Lots of pain.

Less than nine minutes away from winning Major League Soccer's inaugural championship, the Galaxy dropped the trophy, losing, 3-2, in overtime to the Washington D.C. United in front of a drenched but delirious 34,643.

Had MLS wanted to script a Hollywood ending to its first season, it could not have done a better job.

Except that the Hollywood team lost.

Driving rain and swirling winds were the backdrop to a dramatic match that saw the Galaxy build a 2-0 lead on goals by Eduardo Hurtado and Chris Armas, only to see MLS Cup '96 snatched from its grasp in the final 20 minutes.

"I think that's what's really going to stick in our craw for this whole off-season, the fact that we had it and we blew it," said Robin Fraser, who played a stellar game at the center of the Galaxy defense.

"They scored some good goals, but if you're up, 2-0, you should be able to clamp down, and I think that's going to hurt us for a while."

Among the blank-faced, disbelieving Galaxy players was midfielder Jorge Salcedo.

"Losing a game like that is tougher than losing, 5-0," he said. "At least at 5-0 you don't have as bad a taste. We were winning the game for 70 minutes and we were the better team for 70 minutes."

What turned a sure victory into a bitter defeat?

A single player plus the determination of a powerful Washington team that refused to give up and finally discovered the way to break down the Galaxy's makeshift defense.

The player was Marco "El Diablo" Etcheverry, the Bolivian World Cup star whose pinpoint free kick in the 73rd minute found the head of Tony Sanneh, and whose equally accurate corner kick four minutes into overtime found the head of Eddie Pope.

Galaxy goalkeeper Jorge Campos had no chance to stop Sanneh's header, which cut the Los Angeles lead to 2-1. Sanneh was unguarded at the far post in a lapse by the Galaxy defense. Similarly, the defense broke down on the corner kick, with Pope scoring the sudden-death winner by getting to the ball before Curt Onalfo.

Washington's tying goal in the 82nd minute came despite some heroics by Campos, who first punched away an Etcheverry free kick, then blocked a close-range shot by Shawn Medved. Campos could not hold onto the ball, however, and the rebound went to Medved, who fired it into the net and set off a huge celebration in the overwhelmingly pro-Washington crowd.

Once Pope's header had flashed into the net, most of the Galaxy walked off the field and into the locker room, not staying to congratulate the winners. Fraser said the feeling among the players was one of "absolute disbelief," then elaborated.

"We've worked so hard for this all year," he said. "We've been a really close team and we've stuck together through a lot of things. This is really hard for us."

It was a game the Galaxy controlled despite the appalling conditions. A total of 43,368 tickets were sold, but the storm kept almost 9,000 fans home, watching on television instead.

What they saw was Hurtado powering home a header in the fourth minute of the game, off a Mauricio Cienfuegos cross from the right wing. Afterward, Hurtado and three or four Galaxy players dived and slid on the wet grass, arms outstretched, like jets landing at Logan Airport.

The Galaxy hung on to the lead and seemed to have the game in hand when Armas danced through the Washington defense before firing the ball past goalkeeper Mark Simpson to make it 2-0 in the 56th minute.

But in the end, it was not to be.

Galaxy Coach Lothar Osiander tried to hide the hurt with humor.

"They were the better mudders," he said at one point.

"I was hoping to retire, but I wanted a trophy to take home with me," he added. "Now, I'm going to coach another year."

But the pain of defeat was in his eyes.

Particularly disappointing for Osiander was the absence of defender and team captain Dan Calichman at the heart of the Los Angeles defense. Had Calichman not been suspended for receiving three yellow cards in the playoffs, it is possible the outcome might have been different.

At least, that's what Calichman thought.

"I'm not saying by any means that if I was out there we would not have lost, 3-2, because very possibly we could have," he said. "But as one of the leaders on this team, I just felt helpless [on the bench]."

But the Galaxy did lose, and this goes into the team's record books as the season of the near miss, the season the trophy got away.

"We had it," defender Arash Noamouz said quietly. "We had it. I'm so sorry. I'm so sad."

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