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On the Pitch

MLS championship atmosphere begins early

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Monday November 22, 1999 01:49 PM

By Jeff Green, CNN/SI

FOXBORO, Massachusetts -- It's Sunday morning. Late fall. Crowds gathering at Foxboro Stadium. Hamburgers grilling. Beer being swilled. The Kraft family surely getting ready to settle into the owner's suite.

With thousands of jubilant fans already filling the parking lots, this must be a New England Patriots game, right?

Nope. It's Major League Soccer's championship game -- D.C. United vs. the Los Angeles Galaxy -- the league's two best teams squaring off in a rematch of MLS Cup '96. The league gambled on the weather by returning in late November to the site of the rain-soaked the '96 game -- won 3-2 by D.C. in sudden-death overtime.

The gamble paid off. Temperatures were in the mid-50s under clear skies by 10:30 a.m., the previous night's rain having subsided.

MLS officials said they were expecting more than 40,000 fans for the game, even after the local team, the Kraft-operated New England Revolution, got nowhere near the final. That attendance figure would surpass the record for club soccer at Foxboro and beat the '96 crowd by some 6,000.

The Patriots did leave their mark on the game, scarring the middle of the field and installing temporary seating for football that narrowed it to 68 yards.

Surveying the bumpy pitch hours before kickoff were Galaxy president Timothy Leiweke and general manager Sergio Del Prado, who are considering building a stadium of their own.

"We're convinced that if soccer is going to make it in Los Angeles," Leiweke said, "it has to be with a 20,000- to 30, 000-seat stadium that we build and we operate."

"We're committed; it's just a matter of finding the right piece of land," he said, adding that the while the Galaxy will fund construction of the stadium privately, it hopes to have the land donated. "I would bet within a year, we'll have a deal somewhere."

Outside the stadium, long before gates were opened, a cluster of L.A. fans gathered to mug for television cameras, before being booed down by D.C. United supporters. Good will prevailed, and the two groups joined together, jumping, shouting and waving flags in hopes of getting their faces on television.

D.C. United jerseys were, however, evident in much greater numbers than Galaxy jerseys.

United fan Mario Posada said he left the D.C. area at 1:30 a.m. Sunday morning to drive up for the game.

"I don't care that they traded Raul Diaz Arce," the Salvadoran Posada said of his countryman forward, who now plays for Tampa Bay. "They've been to four-straight championship games. They deserve our support."

In parking lot P1, supporters' groups from virtually every MLS team gathered for a tailgate feast organized by the Midnight Riders, a Revolution fan club that also hosted a supporters' summit the day before.

D.C. was represented by at least two groups, the Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles, while a group called the Galaxians was among those wearing L.A.'s colors.

One fan in a Galaxy jersey, Dave Kutzner of Southbury, Conn., wasn't so much rooting for L.A. as he was against D.C.

"We hate D.C. But don't quote me on that; they'll kill me," said Kutzner with a laugh. "We're MetroStars fans."

Back inside the stadium, preparing to go in front of ABC's cameras for the game's broadcast, two of MLS' original stars offered their predictions for the game.

Alexi Lalas, who retired from the Kansas City Wizards this season at age 29, predicted a 2-0 victory for what he called the "underdog" Galaxy. Former D.C. midfielder John Harkes, now with the Revolution, went against his former teammates and took L.A., 2-1.

"I think L.A. wants it more," said Harkes.

Not available for a prediction was young pop star Christina Aguilera, who was singing the national anthem and performing a medley at halftime. Aguilera did a sound check at the stadium at 8:30 a.m., but there was, said an MLS spokesman, "no media access."

In a quiet D.C. locker room, where English Premier League highlights played on television and Snickers and Power Bars were spread across a training table, defender Eddie Pope said the sight of thousands of United fans provided a boost for his team.

"It means a lot for us. We obviously have a lot of people behind us. I think it's going to help us," said Pope, who scored the golden goal to beat L.A. in '96. "They're going to be really loud today, and, hopefully, it's almost going to be like a home game for us."

And as the teams took the field for pregame warmups, a boisterous group of D.C. fans already occupied the end-zone stands, beating drums and blowing horns.

By game times, the temperature was 63 degrees.

Official starting lineups:

Galaxy: GK - Kevin Hartman; D - Ezra Hendrickson, Robin Fraser (c), Paul Caligiuri, Greg Vanney; M - Roy Myers, Danny Pena, Mauricio Cienfuegos, Clint Mathis; F - Carlos Hermosillo, Cobi Jones.

United: GK - Tom Presthus; D - Carey Talley, Eddie Pope, Carlos Llamosa, Jeff Agoos; M - Ben Olsen, Richie Williams, Marco Etcheverry, John Maessner; F - Jaime Moreno, Roy Lassiter.

Related information
CNN/SI's Michael Lewis: D.C. to win third MLS Cup title
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