A DC United Fan Relives MLS Cup 98

Sixteen and a half years after Piotr Nowak, Chris Armas, Zach Thornton made Little Ian cry, I finally revisited the 1998 MLS Cup Final.

I did this in researching a slashMLS debate I had with James on which dynasty, between 90s DC and current-day LA Galaxy, is superior. But I really did this for some closure. This capped a terrible sports year in which UNC lost to Utah in the Final Four and Gary Anderson missed a field goal.

So I figured, why not retro-diary the thing? How did Chicago shut down one of the most prolific attacks in MLS history? Was Zach Thornton really as mean as I remember him? Was my vague 8-year-old sense of conspiracy correct?

Most importantly, was I over it?

Those who wish to follow along can watch the whole match here, thanks to KICKTV. So let’s begin!

1’ Somehow I forgot that Bob Bradley coached the Fire that year. Bruce Arena vs Bob Bradley. That’s kind of neat. It’ll be less neat when Bradley wins but whatever. Right off the bat Jaime Moreno is in on goal from Roy Lassiter! But Moreno skies it.

4’ Marco Etcheverry lines up to take the first of DC’s million corners. It’s a beauty, even though there’s this iron gate thing preventing Etcheverry from taking his normal run-up. Conspiracy 1, Reason 0.

4’ Conspiracy 2, Reason 0! Kubik takes down Etcheverry in the box and it wasn’t even questionable! What an asshole! What kind of bullshit call is that, ref?! Okay so apparently I’m not over this game. That was quick.

5’ Tony Sanneh, playing the Sean Franklin/DeAndre Yedlin/Andy Najar role, is leaving a lot of room behind him down our right flank. I think Chicago might end up taking advantage of this.

6’ Oh hello Chris Armas. Nice dribbler you’ve got going there, it’d be a shame if were cleared off the line by Jeff Agoos oh too bad.

On first glance, it seems Presthus, who the commentators noted took over from Garlick in the playoffs because no one really knows but you don’t really question the Bruce, messed up. Too bad I can’t take a closer look. Oh wait I can! This is a YouTube video, I can do whatever I want! Thank you, technology.

Upon further inspection, Armas simply stepped in front of Carlos Llamosa (who I mistakenly remember as having went to the 1998 World Cup, he’d only very recently been naturalized) to get a touch on Piotr Nowak’s cross. Good play by Armas, though Presthus still shouldn’t really have let it through him. But no harm done.

8’ Kubik takes down another DC legend, John Harkes, who was streaking down the left flank. When you can’t out-soccer them, out-muscle them, I guess. Well actually that is indeed what I remember from the Bob Bradley era and it worked against Spain so I shouldn’t complain.

9’ Etcheverry delivers another sterling corner kick, this one to the back post where Tony Sanneh! Misses. Fuck. A free header too. Oh well, I’m sure we’ll eventually knock one of those in.

12’ A questionable call goes our way as Eddie Pope probably kept Ante Razov onside. See? I can totally be objective. Conspiracy 2, Reason 1.

14’ DC controlled the first five minutes or so but it’s been pretty open since, with Chicago weirdly creating a majority of the chances. They even register the first shot on goal, which forces a routine save out of Presthus that the commentator, whoever he is, thinks is brilliant.

16’ God damn it Roy Lassiter, this is why I started Raul Diaz Arce over you in the all-90s DCU starting XI. You had a 2-on-1 with Moreno to your right but you didn’t see him, selfishly cut inside, and got the ball stolen. Your high pressure somewhat redeems you, though, as we take back possession and Etcheverry! evades Gutierez and Armas with a nifty little move between his legs for a corner kick…that gets called a goal kick. Fuck you, ref. Conspiracy 3, Reason 1.

18’ Oh yikes, Razov rockets a shot off the post. My inclination was to blame Llamosa for leaving him so much space but there wasn’t a lot he could do after Richie Williams’s giveaway.

19’ A beautiful long ball from Ben Olsen (this was his rookie year by the way) lands on Roy Lassiter’s feet and results in a corner, which in turn results in another free header! This time it’s Moreno’s turn to head it wide.

21’ Chicago’s controlling play for another spell, culminating in Kubik trying his luck from outside and just missing the post. I definitely remember my dismay with how much we weren’t controlling this game. After all, our quarrel was supposed to be with the LA Galaxy. Their elimination handed us the Cup! Or so I thought. Apparently this Chicago team got a little better since the two games we trounced them.

And that makes sense, by the way, they did beat LA fair and square, beating LA in a best-of-three series. Say what you will about the 90s, but they got the playoffs right. Sure, eight of twelve teams made the playoffs but the best team almost always wins a 3-game series where the better regular season team gets to host two games.

23’ Zach Thornton’s first involvement is clearing away a would-be Lassiter breakaway. I remember him being a lot meaner than this. Maybe Little Ian isn’t the most reliable source.

24’ Chicago’s best bet was to boot it up to avoid our high pressure, and that’s exactly what they did. But this time it resulted in Llamosa stepping into an attack that fizzled when he fumbled around with the ball under his feet in the box. That’s why he’s a center back I suppose.

I shouldn’t be cynical though, both Llamosa and Pope were gifted ball-handlers and able attackers. You often see center backs join the attack for corner kicks, which is indeed how Pope scored most of his goals, including his famous inaugural cup winner. But Pope and Llamosa occasionally joined in on the fun during the run of play. It was an interesting little wrinkle that definitely contributed to our 81-goal season.

25’ Sanneh, not Kubik, earns the game’s first yellow for bringing down Nowak. It was probably deserved. Conspiracy 3, Reason 2.

26’ Bob Bradley has some hair atop his head! And Chris Armas stoppers Etcheverry for the first of what would be many times. I couldn’t believe it when it happened though. El Diablo was a god to little Ian (on an unrelated note, little Ian grew up in a pagan household), to see him nullified by this rookie American was blaspheme.

28’ Reason levels the match! Agoos tripped up Nowak and the referee fairly called him for it. Also what the fuck, Armas dispossesses Etcheverry again! Two names were seared into the hateful part of my little brain that day: Chris Armas and Zach Thornton. Neither of them scored but it didn’t matter, I was more offended that we didn’t score at all than I was that Chicago scored twice. We gave up two goals all the time. We allowed 51 over a 32-game season. That means more often than not, we gave up multiple goals.

But we scored like crazy. Etcheverry was a big reason why. Our strikers, an all-time great pairing of Lassiter and Moreno, were why. All of our defenders, not just Tony Sanneh, joining the attack on occasion were why.

29’ Chicago scores. This wasn’t really a big deal, though. Giving up the first goal didn’t mean as much in the attacking 90s. Like I said, we averaged nearly three goals/game. We’d given up the first goal in both of our previous two matches against Chicago. We won both by multiple goals.

It was an objectively pretty combination play. Kubik to Nowak back to Kubik, back to Nowak, over to Podbrozny for the easy tap-in. Arena’s offside trap was beaten by two Poles and a Czech. That’s not the last time that would happen. I mean, it didn’t happen again in this game but you should know what I mean.

Jeff Agoos was pretty much the lone United defender who stayed home all game, but he didn’t follow Podbrozny’s run into the box, which was kind of silly. It makes sense for Llamosa to trap Nowak, but if he fails, it’s not like Podbrozny is going to be offside simply because Agoos didn’t follow him. Oh well.

31’ Eddie Pope ventures forward and gets taken down by Razov, who earns himself a yellow.

33’ God damn it Roy Lassiter! Put away one of these free headers off an Etcheverry corner why don’t you!

Incidentally, here’s why DC kept getting free headers at the back post: Etcheverry was really fucking good at corner kicks. You knew that already. But the reason why it fooled Chicago every time in the first half (and quite a lot in the second half too but we’re not there yet) was because it was something of an optical illusion. See, most corner kicks, even dirty ones, are straightforward in-swingers or out-swingers. Most of the ball’s rotation, assuming typical axis orientation where the z-vector points to the sky, is around the z-axis. Not as much effort is put into topspin or backspin, although topspin is kind of cool and better allows for headed goals like John Brooks’s against Ghana.

Etcheverry’s corner kicks had backspin. That might not sound revelatory until you go out to a park and try blasting a few corner kicks. If you’re a relatively experienced right-footed soccer player, it won’t be too hard to deliver an in-swinger from the left corner into the 6-yard box with pace. The out-swinger will be a little trickier but manageable after a few tries. But a back-spinning corner requires almost a different stroke entirely!

As a result of Etcheverry’s backspin, every corner looked like it would die at the center of the 6-yard line for an easy Zach Thornton snag before going just a little farther, thus catching Thornton and a couple defenders out of position. The Chicago defense never really adjusted to this, but Thornton did at halftime, which is why he came up with a couple of huge stops off corner kicks.

Lassiter and Moreno were of course used to this and knew just where to go. WHICH WOULD BE GREAT IF THEY FUCKING HEADED ONE ON TARGET.

Oh, and Conspiracy 4, Reason 3: Etcheverry was just given a shitty yellow card.

35’ Armas dispossesses Etcheverry again.

36’ Little Ian wasn’t nervous yet. This Armas-Etcheverry thing was troubling but we were a goal machine. I knew we had at least five in us.

38’ The graphics in the 90s were pretty funny. Every highlight was preceded by a seizure of words. And the cut-away screens to pre-game interviews had depth for some reason. Like, they were literally a 3-dimensional box. Anyway, Nowak was just talking in one of those about how the Fire drew inspiration from the Chicago Bulls and their defense. Which brings me to my next point, which is that while yes, we had won the previous two MLS Cups and didn’t need this one per se, Chicago had just won three consecutive NBA Championships! Not that I cared because I was a Carolina-everything else fan, but the rest of Washington sports wasn’t exactly the happiest. The Capitals had just recently gotten swept by the Red Wings (that might also have been 1998 actually), and they didn’t have a baseball team and the basketball team was okay? I don’t know, point is Chicago didn’t need shit.

39’ Our Expected Goals for this game are (presumably) over one now as Moreno heads another cross astray, this one from Sanneh.

42’ Oh hey the commentator for this game is Phil Schoen! How did I not recognize that?

45’ CONSPIRACY! CONSPIRACY! So a little background on where/how Little Ian was watching this game to prove I’m not full of shit and actually do remember all this: At some point in the summer, after the World Cup, my mom and I didn’t have cable at our Chapel Hill apartment anymore. So we would often trek to my mother’s father’s (I called him Papa because I don’t know why but I was the eldest grandchild and so it caught on muahaha) apartment to watch DC United games. The only problem was that we often lost when we went there. A shootout loss to Tampa Bay, Game 2 against Columbus, and even a loss against the fucking Miami Fusion (I would say Little Ian didn’t quite put it like that but he did listen to Cock Sparrer so maybe he did, who knows) were all watched at Papa’s apartment.

We ordered a pizza from Papa John’s (yeah, laugh it up) that was half-cheese and half-disgusting vegetables, which was bullshit because everyone knows some vegetables always sneak offside and ruin everything.

So I remember all that, but until now all I remembered of the second goal was Papa saying “He was screened” and a vague sense of injustice.

Presthus WAS screened! By Ante Razov! WHO WAS OFFSIDE LIKE THOSE GOD DAMN VEGETABLES!

I do remember feeling at halftime that the universe was conspiring against me and I was pretty justified.

I just got irate all over again. More than 16 years later. Watching this game for just the second time in my life.

48’ Definitely fueled by my frustration from across the country in Chapel Hill and not his own from missing so many headers, Lassiter hurls the ball against the side of the goal after finally getting a header right only for it to be impossibly saved by Thornton. Impossible not just because of the reflexes but because Thornton wasn’t there in the first half.

50’ They talked to the referee at halftime and he said that Razov was not interfering with play and that’s why he wasn’t called offside. There’s neither enough snark nor sarcasm to properly convey my feelings for that sentence so I’ll just give it to y’all straight: Nowak’s shot ricocheted off Gutierez and into the goal. The person that prevented Presthus from seeing and reacting to the ricochet was Razov. And it’s not like Presthus had already committed himself, he’d taken all of a step. After the ricochet came the quick step and leap…in the wrong direction. Not interfering indeed.

51’ In an effort to lure Thornton away from the back post, Etcheverry changed it up and launched a corner off the near post. It was an impressive feat but we didn’t make much of it.

53’ Zach Thornton is starting to turn into the meanie I remember him to be, this time collecting Sanneh’s admittedly weak header.

59’ Shouts for a penalty as a Lassiter header glances off the outstretched hand of Okaroh! It would have been a harsh call, though. Oh and the reason why my updates might get fewer and farther between is because I’m getting pouty. Maybe give me another 16 years to get over this game.

60’ What up Frank Klopas, coming on for the Fire as a substitute.

61’ Armas dispossesses Etcheverry. That phrase would have taken seven keystrokes if I were writing this on my phone. Etcheverry looks kind of timid, which was just really odd. El Diablo bows to no man, or so I thought. The reason I say this is right now is because he hesitated to send a slick through ball to Moreno and waited for worse options. That wasn’t the Etcheverry I loved.

63’ Armas does it again. It should be noted that I shouldn’t have been as despondent as I was. Only two years ago, we came back from a 2-goal, 77th minute deficit to win the first MLS Cup.

64’ Because Bob Bradley is a professional soccer coach, he’s furious that all the calls are going one way. Hey, maybe he’s just standing up for his former mentor. I kind of doubt it though.

66’ Jesse Marsch declares his existence with a bicycle kick off a corner that goes high and wide. By the way, this game featured five players who would eventually be MLS Head Coaches, four of whom played for Chicago: Klopas, Marsch, Nowak, Olsen, and Tom Soehn (who would come on later). That might be a record, I’ll have to look that up once I’m done being pissed off.

69’ Thornton justifies his meaniehead status again by snagging a well-driven Olsen cross.

I knew that Bruce Arena would be named USMNT coach pretty shortly after this game, but I didn’t know that it would be two days later. The color commentator (I don’t know who he is) finally just corrected Schoen after his third or fourth time saying, “Will this be Bruce Arena’s final game coaching DC United?” by relating an imminent US Soccer press conference that would announce just that.

Bruce Arena would definitely remember Chris Armas shutting down Etcheverry. This was an audition of sorts for a lot of prospective American national teamers. Armas aced the audition and went on to feature heavily in qualifying for South Korea/Japan. He would have played in that World Cup too had he not suffered a major knee injury.

It’s really a shame that the audition concept wasn’t made clearer by MLS, US Soccer, or ESPN at the time. The percentage of overlap between MLS and the USMNT was probably greater in those days than it is now, but it still would have been a nice way to draw interest.

Back to the audition concept: Fourteen of the MLS Cup 98 starters were eligible for USMNT selection. A 15th, Diego Gutierrez, would gain American citizenship and become eligible two years later. Bruce Arena would cap all fifteen, and would even cap a 16th, Josh Wolff, who’s about to come on as a substitute.

Those 16 (The full list: Presthus, Sanneh, Agoos, Llamosa, Pope, Harkes, Richie Williams, Olsen, Lassiter, Thornton, CJ Brown, Gutierrez, Armas, Marsch, Razov, and Wolff) would combine for 390 international caps under Arena.

Of those 16:

  • Nine (Agoos, Llamosa, Pope, Williams, Olsen, Lassiter, Thornton, Brown, and Armas) would feature in Arena’s debut match against Australia 12 days after this Final. Of those nine, Llamosa, Williams, Olsen, Brown, and Armas would also be making their international debut.
  • Four more (Presthus, Marsch, Gutierrez, and Wolff) would make their international debuts later under Arena.
  • Eleven (Sanneh, Agoos, Llamosa, Pope, Williams, Olsen, Thornton, Armas, Marsch, Razov, and Wolff) would combine for 72 caps over the US’s 2002 World Cup Qualifying campaign, led by Sanneh and Armas with 14 each.
  • Five (Sanneh, Agoos, Llamosa, Pope, and Wolff) would appear in the 2002 World Cup. Armas likely would have had he not gotten hurt.
  • Four (Pope, Olsen, Armas, and Wolff) would also participate in the 2006 World Cup campaign, combining for 19 qualifying caps. Pope, Olsen, and Wolff would play in the 2006 World Cup (I felt pretty bad for Armas after looking all this up).
  • Only three (Presthus, Gutierrez, and Marsch) would earn just one cap under Arena, and only three more (Harkes, Lassiter, and Thornton, a goalkeeper) would earn fewer than ten.

If you’re interested in the other seven starters:

  • Lubos Kubik played in a World Cup (1990) and a European Championship (1996) for Czechoslovakia.
  • Nowak, Podbrozny, and Kosecki never qualified Poland for a major tournament, but they did combine to play 38 major qualifying matches.
  • Marco Etcheverry helped Bolivia qualify for the 1994 World Cup, where he was sent off in his first match. Moreno also played in that World Cup, and the duo played in several Copa Americas.
  • The only player in this game who never represented his national team was Francis Okaroh of Nigeria.

This is why I argue that the MLS talent level in 1998 wasn’t that bad.

The fun thing about this game is that both coaches were basically who they are today. Arena had DC playing a pretty-looking, high-pressure, offensive-minded, creative game. That didn’t change when he managed the USMNT and it hasn’t changed to this day with the Galaxy. Meanwhile, Bradley beat Arena with a defend-and-counter approach that gummed up the midfield and flew down the wings. That’s the game that beat Spain in 2009 and gave England fits a year later. It was most useful when his players were more physical than their opponents. DC United wasn’t going to compete with Kubik’s, Nowak’s, and Armas’s physicality and Chicago punished Sanneh down our right flank.

In short, this game is a perfect 90-minute representation of the USMNT from 1999 to 2010. Too bad we lost.

78’ Thornton and his bald head is snuffing out every shot, every cross, and every slight opportunity. He’s really starting to get on my nerves.

The moment of truth approaches, we’re nearing the minute where DC pulled one back in the first MLS Cup.

80’ Schoen just mentioned that Etcheverry is playing through a hamstring injury. I totally forgot about that! I mean, I remember it now, because I definitely remember asking my grandfather, who was a physician, after Game 2 in Columbus what a hamstring was and how well Etcheverry could play on a bad one. I don’t mean to discredit Armas at all, by the way, but Etcheverry definitely does only look 60 to 70 percent of himself, perhaps even worse as the game wears on.

81’ Thornton saves another Lassiter header.

84’ Three different DC players whiff on Lassiter’s cross, Harkes most egregiously.

I know that DC isn’t going to score. I know that Gutierrez’s goal in the 45th minute is the game’s last. But that doesn’t stop me from getting frustrated today, right now, as I watch three players not score a goal. A goal that they’ve all scored for DC somewhat regularly. Had the cross flashed by in the 13th minute, Little Ian would have raged. But by this point, the cold reality of yet another Tragic Sports Loss was setting in. It was the same sinking, what the hell is going on feeling I felt seven months prior, when the Tar Heels somehow let freaking Utah walk all over them in the Final Four. That same feeling I felt with fellow Vikings fans (I was a Vikings fan at the time, the Panthers were on Little Ian probation after Rae Carruth) as a perfect kicker whiffed possibly one of the greatest teams ever out of the Super Bowl.

89’ Armas dispossesses Etcheverry one last time.

Fun fact: Jurgen Klinsmann apparently attended the MLS Awards Dinner with Arena and Bradley the previous night. I wonder if the three plotted the next 20 years of the USMNT that day.

On a related note, stupidface Doug Logan, the first MLS commissioner and the guy who very nearly ran the league into the ground, talked with one of the sideline reporters at some point between the 60th and 80th minutes. He announced that they were taking away an international spot from every team, going from five to four per team.

This was apparently happening because MLS wanted to attract premier international talent like Lothar Matthaus instead of sub-standard international talent like Jorge Campos and Carlos Valderrama and Marco Etcheverry.

90’+ If you watch this game on KICKTV like I did, you’ll get confused because the commentators will talk about there being 15 minutes left when the clock hits 80. That’s way too early to know how much stoppage time there will be, you might think. Well back in the 90s, we used to do this countdown clock thing that the referee would stop for goals, injuries, substitutions, and blatant wastes of time. It was so dumb that the NCAA still uses it.

We wouldn’t come at all close to scoring over the final five minutes.

Screw you and your perfectly curled coif, Piotr Nowak.

Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley are chilling at midfield. Arena’s talking about all the times he was screwed over. Is Bradley nodding in agreement?

No, but I can pretend he is. I certainly am, though.

Ugh, fuck this shit. The stupid buzzer thing sounded. We lost. We’re not 3-time champions and indisputable rulers of all-time MLS.

“Shut up, you guys won a Super Bowl last year,” say many to the distraught Seattle fans. But losing out on all-time greatness is hard, arguably harder than simply losing out on a title. Instead of being one of the six or so organizations that have won back-to-back Super Bowls, they’re now just one of 49 champions. Being among the six greatest is a lot more fun and offers a lot more bragging rights.

In the end, that’s really what this was about. Teams that win a single title are considered great for a year. But fans don’t stop cheering or caring after that one title. The job isn’t done. As a fan, you set your sights on all-time greatness. And we blew it, we let 2010s LA into the argument.

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