Galaxy Walks Away From Loss as Winner in Sportsmanship
What’s the difference between a winner and a loser?
Certainly not the ability to hold aloft some sort of gleaming trophy at the end of a season and proclaim, along with all the finger-pointing fans, that “We’re No. 1!”
Those who earn championships are not necessarily winners. Just as those who do not win them are not necessarily losers. The pawn shops of the world are filled with the dust-covered trophies of forgotten champions.
It’s sportsmanship that is remembered long after who defeated whom is forgotten.
Sportsmanship of the type demonstrated Friday night in Chicago.
It would have been easy, for example, for Greg Vanney to have disappeared into the night after the Galaxy had been eliminated from Major League Soccer’s playoffs by the Chicago Fire.
Vanney, a 24-year-old defender out of UCLA, is one of five players remaining from the team’s inaugural season, when Los Angeles went all the way to the MLS championship game only to lose, heartbreakingly, to Washington D.C. United in the final.
For the last few weeks, Vanney has been the Galaxy’s forgotten man, inexplicably consigned to the bench while rookie Joe Franchino took his starting place at left back.
Vanney was promised that he would play Friday, but it turned out that he came on for only the final two minutes. He also was one of four Galaxy players who failed to score in the shootout as the Fire won, 2-1, to sweep the series and take the Western Conference title.
So it would have been understandable for Vanney to simply have vanished from Soldier Field, feeling bitter and disillusioned.
Instead, he not only faced reporters in the quiet of the Galaxy locker room but, along with Robin Fraser, later walked over to the Chicago locker room to congratulate former teammate Chris Armas.
Armas, 27, is another of the Galaxy veterans of ’96, the team that held a two-goal lead over D.C. United with 20 minutes to play in the championship game, only to see it washed away in the rain at Foxboro Stadium.
This was to have been a redemption season for Los Angeles. Ever since the league awarded MLS Cup ’98 to the Rose Bowl, the Galaxy had been expected to be there.
The league was counting on it. With the Galaxy in the final, the crowd would have topped 50,000 next Sunday. Now, it will be lucky to reach 30,000.
More important than attendance, Vanney, Fraser, Dan Calichman, Cobi Jones and Mauricio Cienfuegos all were determined to erase the memory of 1996 by winning the championship in their home stadium in 1998.
Now, it is not to be.
Now, it is left to Armas, traded to the Fire last spring against the wishes of Galaxy Coach Octavio Zambrano, to win that title.
Zambrano, unusually tight-lipped in the postgame press conference Friday night, nevertheless showed a sense of humor when asked again about the Armas trade.
“That’s what we do,” he said. “We train them well and then we send them to the expansion teams.”
Even Armas, pleased as he is about reaching the final, admitted to having divided loyalties.
“For myself, I’m ecstatic, I’m happy, but those guys [the Galaxy] had a great year,” he said, his Bronx accent as strong as ever. “I share those memories of ’96 that have been eating at all of us. I know they wanted to get back to this championship just as much as me.
“If we didn’t win this round, 100% I’d be rooting for those guys. Definitely. To be beating D.C. or Columbus. Sure.
“I have a lot of respect for all those guys. They must feel awful. They blew away the league this year. They were in two tough, close games [with the Fire] that in all honesty could have gone either way.
“I feel for those guys. At the same time, I’m happy for me and my new teammates that we’re going. And you know what? I think some of those guys will be rooting for me and my team, just like I would be for them.”
Los Angeles-area fans are very likely to be supporting Chicago next Sunday, especially if its opponent is D.C. United, which plays Columbus in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals today.
A Chicago-Washington final would pit D.C. United Coach Bruce Arena against his former assistant, Fire Coach Bob Bradley, who was another of those demonstrating good sportsmanship Friday night.
He could have gloated about having stopped the best offensive team in the league. He could have said it proves he should be selected MLS coach of the year ahead of Zambrano.
He did none of that. Instead, he praised the Galaxy.
“I have tremendous respect for them,” Bradley said. “Not to single out one guy, but I look at a guy like Robin Fraser, he’s such a class act, such a good player, that I have to feel for them.”
Fraser has enjoyed his best season yet, even while filling in as captain for Calichman, whose broken leg forced him to spend most of the season on the sideline.
That vantage point gave Calichman a unique perspective on the Galaxy’s third season, a year in which it ended up 26-10, including playoff games.
“Certainly, before these two games [against Chicago], we could say it was a huge success,” he said. “We did everything we wanted to do and accomplished everything we wanted to accomplish.
“Obviously, we’re going to end the season on a down note, just like we did last year, and feel as if we should be playing Oct. 25 [in the final]. But we went up against a good team. I think you have to congratulate them [the Fire]. They played us tough for two games. I don’t think there’s a question who we’re going to be rooting for.
“Of course we’re down, but it gives us something to work on in the off-season. Our [first-round] loss to Dallas last year pushed us hard during the off-season and we came back strong this year.
“Now we have the same kind of incentive. It’s tough to be the bridesmaid, but we’ve just got to do things better and work harder and hopefully be on the receiving end of a championship game soon.”
In the coming days, Galaxy and league officials will meet to plan roster moves for the 1999 season. One thing that appears certain is that the number of foreign players per team will be reduced from five to four.
Zambrano was asked late Friday if not reaching the championship game would adversely color the season.
“I’ll let others be the judge of that,’ he replied. “But it can never be considered a failure when the team has accomplished the things that it has accomplished this season.”
Championship trophies are fine, but in the long run respect is a far more worthwhile thing to have won.