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Hunt Earns the MLS Title With Wizards

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the guests of honor at Sunday’s Major League Soccer championship game in Washington was Johan Cruyff, the legendary Dutch player and coach who, near the end of his playing career, spent a brief sojourn in the North American Soccer League.

The sport has come a long way in the U.S. since those days two decades ago, but after watching the Kansas City Wizards defeat the Chicago Fire, 1-0, to win their first MLS title, Cruyff decided that it still has a long way to go.

“Little by little, you have to teach to the United States that this is the best game in the world,” the former Los Angeles Aztec and Washington Diplomat said. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be so popular.

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“But people here are the way they are.”

It’s doubtful Cruyff would have voiced quite that negative an opinion in front of another of Sunday’s honored guests. After all, Lamar Hunt has been funneling millions of dollars into the sport for more than three decades.

On Sunday, Hunt even went so far as to pass up watching his Kansas City Chiefs play--and lose--to the Oakland Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium so that he could be one of the 39,159 at RFK Stadium instead.

It was fitting, therefore, that it was his Wizards who won the title, doing so on a somewhat lucky 11th-minute goal by Miklos Molnar and behind an impenetrable defense anchored by goalkeeper Tony Meola.

Most of the game was played in Kansas City’s half of the field, with the Fire--the best offensive team in MLS this season--unleashing 22 shots compared to only six by the Wizards.

But Meola, who already had picked up goalkeeper of the year, comeback player of the year and league most valuable player honors, was intent on winning what mattered most to him: the MLS championship.

In all, he made 10 saves, several of them spectacular, while denying fierce shots from Ante Razov, Dema Kovalenko, Peter Nowak and Hristo Stoitchkov.

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The woodwork also helped the Wizards, with Stoitchkov rattling the right post with a thunderous shot in the 25th minute and Diego Gutierrez somehow contriving to hit the crossbar from three yards out in the 54th minute.

But the writing should have been on the wall for Chicago the moment Molnar scored. The statistics were overwhelmingly in favor of the league’s top defensive team at that point.

Coming in to the title game, the Wizards had lost only two games all season when scoring first and were 13-0-1 in games in which Molnar scored.

The goal developed deep in the Chicago half, where Chris Klein stripped Gutierrez of the ball--possibly fouling him in the process although no call was made--and then took off down the right sideline, beating Chris Armas en route.

Klein’s cross into the goal area eluded the Chicago defense, and winger Jesse Marsch, tracking back to help, was unable to clear the ball. It fell to Molnar, who missed it with one foot but tucked it inside the right post with the other for his fifth goal of the playoffs.

“I don’t care how it went in,” the bald-headed Danish striker said. “The ball went over the line and that was the main point.”

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With the exception of a few Kansas City counterattacks, the rest of the game belonged to the Fire.

But Chicago, even after sending Josh Wolff and Damarcus Beasley into the game in the last half hour, couldn’t beat Meola and the determined defenders in front of him.

Afterward, Meola was buried in a pile of celebrating players after beating the 1998 MLS champion.

“I’m not a handstand kind of guy,” said Kansas City Coach Bob Gansler, “but inside I’m doing exactly that. I feel good.”

Added Peter Vermes, the MLS defender of the year, “I’m happy for the Hunt family. Yesterday in training they said they hadn’t won a championship in soccer for 30 years and they were hoping we could pull this off for them.”

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