A half hour after MLS Cup '97 was over, the spectators still hadn't left. All through the sold-out stands of Washington's RFK Stadium stood gatherings of men and women born in another America. The fans—tens of thousands of them, outnumbering the Anglos in attendance—were from Nicaragua, El Salvador, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, many of them recent immigrants clinging to the pastime of their homelands. They sang in Spanish for their triumphant club, D.C. United, blew whistles and banged drums. Their dark hair was soaked from a driving rain that nearly matched the game in its intensity. Major League Soccer had concluded its second season. The league still has had only one champion. The most popular song in Washington on Sunday night had the simplest lyrics: �Ol�, D.C., ol�, ol�!
This year there was a new victim for United in the title match, the Colorado Rapids. Colorado played gamely before bowing 2-1, but it had two distinct geographic disadvantages. First, the Rapids were playing on United's home field. Second, they started only one foreign player, Mexican midfielder David Pati�o. It's true that U.S. soccer improves yearly, but taking the field with so much domestic talent? Is there a Spanish word for chutzpah?
Among the United 11 were four Latinos from countries in which soccer is handed down from generation to generation, along with the family Bible. In the back was Carlos Llamosa, a central defender from Colombia. Up front was the celebrated Magic Triangle: midfielder Marco Etcheverry of Bolivia passing to forwards Ra�l D�az Arce of El Salvador and Jaime Moreno, a fellow Bolivian and MLS's leading goal scorer. In the 37th minute some crafty decoy work by D�az Arce created the game's first goal. Though he was in superb position to score, he let a cross from the right flank roll by him to Moreno, who is a curious sight, with his bleached-blond hair and black eyebrows. His footwork, however, is classically beautiful. Moreno slipped past a defender, didn't attempt a shot when everybody thought he would and then skipped home a tumbling-bumbling 12-yarder under diving goalkeeper Marcus Hahnemann.
Rapids coach Glenn (Mooch) Myernick knew that his team was overmatched going into the MLS Cup, so he tried to use the talent deficit to his advantage. Colorado's 14-18 record during the regular season was the third worst in the league. (The MLS playoffs are an equal-opportunity affair; of the 10 teams, eight make the playoffs.) United, on the other hand, had put up the best mark, 21-11, even though coach Bruce Arena was never able to start the same lineup twice.
The night before the championship game, more than 700 members of the soccer community, from average fans to high functionaries, gathered at Union Station for a swanky MLS awards dinner. The highlight of the evening was seeing Mooch, with his crooked nose and shiny head, strutting around in a snug-fitting tuxedo, looking for the hors d'oeuvres guy. What he found was motivation. No Rapids player won an award, while United players were posing for pictures all night long, trophies in hand.
On Colorado's locker room wall before Sunday's game, Myernick taped up pictures of the previous night's winners. Then he turned off the lights, gathered his players around a TV and had them watch a tape of all 50 goals the Rapids scored this year. He never mentioned United. Over in the home clubhouse the D.C. players sat in front of their lockers, still and silent. Several of them were reading game programs. "I like 'em like this," said Arena. "Loose, but not too loose. Up, but not too up."
Out on the field, the league's commissioner, Doug Logan, stood under an umbrella, the cuffs of his pin-striped trousers soaking up water as he remembered the inaugural title match, in which United defeated the Los Angeles Galaxy 3-2 in a monsoon at Foxboro Stadium. Last year there were 20,000 empty seats. This year 57,431 dripping souls packed RFK, oblivious to the puddles in which they stood. They arrived before the national anthem and stayed after the conclusion of the awards ceremony as the rain poured down, hard and cold, for more than two hours. The fans stood and watched and sang and whistled. Arena marveled at the intensity of United's Spanish-speaking supporters. "They're the soul of our team," he said.
Still, at halftime the D.C. lead was just 1-0. Myernick began his calm address to his players with: "First of all, what a great effort." He ended it with: "Whatever you do, don't quit." It was a great effort, and his team never quit. Arena said afterward that the Rapids reflected the personality of Myernick, who is a friend. "They're bastards," Arena said. "They're fighters."
D.C. doubled its lead in the 68th minute on a goal off the shorn head of midfielder Tony Sanneh, but United could not put the match away. The final 20 minutes of the game was a blur of rain and drumbeats and Spanish chants and, in the 71st minute, a magnificent but futile bicycle kick by Colorado defender Marcelo Balboa. The Rapids' goal came with 16 minutes to go, a spectacular, unreachable bullet past United keeper Scott Garlick off the foot of a substitute midfielder, Adri�n Paz, who is from Uruguay. Late in the game Balboa did a little slam dance with 5'5" midfielder Richie Williams of D.C., which ended with Williams sprawled on the grass. Balboa did not reach over to pick him up. Instead he dropped a ball on his chest.
In the end heart wasn't enough for Colorado. Position for position United had the better matchup 11 times, and D.C. was led by a coach who had won before. After the game the Salvadoran fans flocked to D�az Arce. The Bolivian fans waited for Etcheverry and Moreno, who was named the game's Most Valuable Player. When a crowd massed on the north side of the stadium to salute the United players, the railing gave way. Some 50 people were treated by medical staff at the site for cuts and bruises, and two fans were taken to a hospital with minor injuries.