Its victims were complaining about bad bounces and controversial calls, sounding a lot like any NBA foe that crossed paths with the leprechaun that used to watch over Bill Russell's Boston Celtics. D.C. United stands accused as a beneficiary of good fortune, which puts the team in the company of those rare champions who win year after year, as opposed to those teams who make excuses for losing.
United seized its third MLS title on Sunday, which is especially impressive considering the league is just four years old. Its 2-0 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy in MLS Cup '99 will not go down as an advertisement for the beauty of soccer. The match was played on a sunny day before a crowd of 44,910 in Foxboro Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, who had left their footprints all over the place. "The field was horrible, as bad as it gets," said D.C. defender Jeff Agoos. "It wasn't as much a soccer game as it was a fight for territory."
Take United in a fight every time. D.C.'s first score came in the 19th minute when Galaxy defender Paul Caligiuri whiffed a clearance from the chewed-up turf in front of the goal, allowing striker Jaime Moreno to poke in a rebound of Roy Lassiter's shot. It scored again during injury time in the first half when the Galaxy's Kevin Hartman—who earlier in the week had been named Goalkeeper of the Year—scuffed a pass from the top of the penalty area directly to forward Ben Olsen, who earned the game's MVP award in large part for putting the ball into the unprotected net. Both goals could be attributed to the condition of the field, as well as to the broken collarbone suffered in the fifth minute by L.A.'s Robin Fraser, the MLS Defender of the Year, who was pushed down from behind by Lassiter. "It's amazing to me that such a gifted athlete as Robin could fall on his own with nobody around him, no foul, nothing," said LA coach Sigi Schmid sarcastically of referee Tim Weyland's failure to whistle Lassiter for a foul. "The refereeing was crap."
United took great pride in capitalizing on the misery of others. "Over the years we've found ways to win," said Thomas Rongen, who in his first year as D.C. coach picked up where Bruce Arena left off. " 'I don't believe in luck. It seems like the good teams, the teams that are dynasties, have that certain mental edge, and the balls fall their way."
The week leading up to the game began with promising news for MLS. For starters, Don Garber, who replaced Doug Logan as commissioner in August, slashed five weeks off the abysmally long season, which began last March. (Next year's championship will be played in mid-October.) Better yet, he guaranteed fans that they never would have to suffer through another shootout. The past four years have demonstrated that the league's contrived tie-breaking device belonged with the cuckoo clock, Earth shoes and the Macarena in the category of things that never should have been conceived. After 10 minutes of sudden- death overtime, matches will be permitted to end in a draw next season, with one point awarded to each team. (Winning teams will receive three points, whether they win in regulation or OT.) With the hard-core fan in mind, Garber also ruled that official time will be kept by the referee on the field, with injury time to be added at his discretion, and that the scoreboard clocks will not count down but up, as they do in soccer stadiums throughout the world.
By adopting these international conventions, Garber was expressing faith that American soccer can prosper without so many gimmicks. He can only hope that his changes help arrest the steady drop in attendance, which reached a four-year low of 14,282 fans per game. The league also faces a decline in scoring, from 3-56 goals per game last year to 2.86 this season, though some soccer purists cite this drop-off as a sure sign that MLS play is reaching a higher level. "As the defense in the league improves, it forces the players to improve on offense," says Schmid, whose team surrendered a record-low 29 goals this year. "They have to be more sophisticated and do more things to break down the defense."
On Sunday, United's turned out to be the unbreakable defense. In addition to Agoos and Eddie Pope, its greatest asset was Richie Williams, who shut down playmaker Mauricio C�enfuegos. Wherever he went, Williams went with him. If there's a dance to be had, you can be sure that the United player will not miss a step.