Dynasty Awaits United
Dynasty or destiny?
The Bolivian connection or the Eastern Bloc?
“El Diablo” or “Nowak-ain”?
Major League Soccer’s third championship game, MLS Cup ’98, offers all those choices this afternoon when defending champion Washington D.C. United plays the Chicago Fire at 12:30 at the Rose Bowl.
On the one hand, there will be Coach Bruce Arena’s D.C. United team seeking its third title in as many years.
Normally, it would be the team in black--appropriate in Galaxy eyes since it was Washington that came from two goals down to defeat Los Angeles in MLS Cup ’96--but D.C. is the visitor today and will wear white.
On the other hand, there will be Coach Bob Bradley’s Fire, in its first season and wearing red.
That might offend Marco “El Diablo” Etcheverry, the Bolivian wizard who is the player of the year in MLS. It won’t bother his opposite number, Peter Nowak, the Polish prince of the Chicago midfield.
Nowak is one of four players recruited from eastern Europe by the Fire. Fellow Pole Jerzy Podbrozny and defender of the year Lubos Kubik of the Czech Republic will be on the field today. The fourth, gifted Polish winger Roman Kosecki, has a hamstring injury and likely will not play.
Etcheverry and countryman Jaime Moreno--both from Santa Cruz, Bolivia, and both graduates of the famed Tahuichi soccer academy--have been the principal architects of Washington’s three-year romp through the league. This season, they scored 26 goals and assisted on 40 as D.C. United went 24-8 in the regular season and 4-1 in the playoffs.
Throw American striker Roy Lassiter’s 28 goals in league and cup play into the mix and it’s easy to see why Washington is favored.
MLS Commissioner Doug Logan sees nothing wrong with a D.C. dynasty, although some might dispute his viewpoint.
“I’ve got no trouble with it,” he said. “I think that playoffs are designed to create a win by the league’s best team. The NFL has had some very interesting dynasties. Is it bad for basketball to have Michael Jordan have six rings? Was it bad for baseball when the Yankees won everything in sight for a period of time? The answer is ‘no,’ so I’ve got no problem with it.”
Arena’s team comes into the game with more talent but less rest.
After sweeping the Miami Fusion in the Eastern Conference semifinals, it was taken to three games by the Columbus Crew in the finals. It was a week ago today that the Crew swamped Washington, 4-2, in the rain in Columbus, Ohio. D.C. United returned the favor on Wednesday with a 3-0 whitewash in Washington.
All of which means that today’s championship match is the team’s third game in eight days. Chicago has had nine days’ rest since sweeping the Colorado Rapids and then the Galaxy in the Western Conference to add a 4-0 playoff run to a 20-12 regular season.
That won’t make any difference, said both coaches.
“We’ll be ready to play,” said Arena, who had Bradley alongside him on the D.C. United bench for the first two championships.
Now, the former assistant wants one of his own.
The teams’ styles are in sharp contrast. Washington is an attacking team with speed in almost every position. Its passing game, when in form, is every bit as exciting and lethal as the Galaxy’s.
Chicago plays more of a counter-attacking style, marking opponents man to man, staying deep in its half and moving its offense into gear only when a good opportunity presents itself. It does not have D.C. United’s speed, but it does have a better player between the posts in MLS goalkeeper-of-the-year Zach Thornton.
The difference in approach is reflected in goals: Washington scored 74 in the regular season and allowed 48; Chicago scored 62 and allowed 45.
Chicago’s perceived concentration on defense to the exclusion of all else has been criticized throughout the season. At times, the comments have been cutting.
“When it comes to playmaking,” wrote Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner, “a colony of lobotomized lemmings could have produced more creative initiative than we got from the Fire. As for anything that looked even remotely like artistry . . . well, dream on.”
The game Gardner was criticizing was Game 1 of the Galaxy-Fire Western Conference finals at the Rose Bowl. Chicago won, 1-0, on a late goal by Jesse Marsch, but it was anything but a dull game because Los Angeles was constantly on the offensive.
In fact, an argument might be made that defensive teams actually encourage creativity--not by themselves but by the opposition. The fact that the Galaxy did not win means that Coach Octavio Zambrano will either have to go back to the drawing board and design a few more plays or acquire some new players who can break down a disciplined defense.
Today’s game should offer a few clues along those lines.
Chicago will stick to its strengths and that means D.C. will do most of the attacking. With players such as Etcheverry, Moreno and Lassiter up front, Washington has weapons aplenty. Midfielder John Harkes and defender Jeff Agoos each have a hard shot and Eddie Pope is a danger on set plays and corners.
Bradley admits the Fire will mostly be on the defensive.
“Somebody asked me, ‘How do you beat D.C.?’ ” he said, “and I said, ‘You have to play better than them.’ And that’s a dumb answer, but the point still is that that’s soccer.
“You can’t let Marco [Etcheverry] do everything he wants. You can’t let Jaime [Moreno] do everything he wants. But at the same time you still have to be able to be sharper yourself, good with the ball, able to produce plays going forward.”
Chicago can do that. Its forward line is only so-so, but former UCLA and Galaxy striker Ante Razov had a career year with 10 goals and nine assists. His partner in attack, former U.S. national team forward Frank Klopas, was less successful.
The Fire’s best hope, however, is in its solidity. This is a blue-collar team with a lot of self-belief. It might be outmatched but it won’t be intimidated.
“This team has a bunch of guys who have tremendous character,” Bradley said. “They’ve stuck together all year and are excited about having a chance to win it all.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
No. Player Position 14 Chris Armas* D 2 C.J. Brown* D 8 Diego Gutierrez* D/M 24 Dusty Hudock GK 25 Zak Ibsen D 19 Josh Keller M 41 Frank Klopas F 11 Roman Kosecki M/F 3 Richie Kotschau D 5 Lubos Kubik* D 22 Tony Kuhn F 7 Manny Lagos M 17 Andrew Lewis 15 Jesse Marsch* M 10 Peter Nowak* M 20 Francis Okaroh* D 9 Jerzy Podbrozny* M/F 12 Ante Razov* F 6 Tom Soehn D 18 Zach Thornton* GK 16 Josh Wolff F
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Washington DC United
No. Player Position 12 Jeff Agoos* D 5 Geoff Aunger D 25 Danny Care D 33 Judah Cooks M 10 Marco Etcheverry* F 1 Scott Garlick GK 11 Mario Gori D 6 John Harkes* M 8 Brian Kamier D/M 15 Roy Lassiter* F 18 Carlos Llamosa* D 9 Jaime Moreno* F 14 Ben Olsen* M 24 Curt Onalfo D 23 Eddie Pope* D 22 Tom Presthus* GK 20 Tony Sanneh* M 19 Mike Silvinski M 3 Carey Talley D/M 16 Richie Williams* M 7 A.J. Wood F
* Projected Starter