April 6, 1996. This was a day that was anticipated, if not decreed, eight years earlier when on July 4, 1988 the U.S. was awarded the right to stage the 1994 World Cup; because the fine print said that as part and parcel of the privilege to stage the worlds largest single sport event, the organizers of World Cup USA were also tasked by FIFA to create a new outdoor Division I professional league.
And so on April 6, the dream that became a business plan that became a league, became a reality. On this day It was the long-awaited debut of Major League Soccer.
Had the scene at Spartan Stadium been conceived in Hollywood, this highly anticipated match between D.C. United and the San Jose Clash could not have been better scripted. Each side featured one of America's most popular, successful, and recognizable stars. United was captained by all-American workhorse John Harkes while the Clash featured high-flying, flamboyant national team scoring ace, Eric Wynalda. Both American superstars had returned from top leagues overseas to play professionally in their homeland.
An American pioneer, Harkes succeeded in the English Premier League, establishing himself as a favorite among the notoriously tough English soccer fans following his phenomenal "goal of the year" at Wembley Stadium. Meanwhile over in Germany, Wynalda, America's all-time leading goal scorer, took the famed Bundesliga by storm with his tenacity and high-spirited play.
Before a capacity crowd, 300 members of the news media, and dozens of soccer dignitaries including FIFA President Joao Havelange, D.C. United and the Clash took the field at the conclusion of the opening ceremonies and at just a few minutes after 5 PM Pacific Time, kicked off a new era in US sports. Division I professional soccer had returned to the U.S.
The ground breaking match remained scoreless for nearly 90 minutes as United goalkeeper Jeff Causey turned back numerous San Jose scoring opportunities. Finally in the waning minutes of regulation, the home team's superstar - Wynalda - emerged as the man of the hour. The crafty and cunning striker, who had failed on several earlier scoring opportunities, beat a United defender with an inside-outside move before curling a 35-yard shot into the far corner for the game-winner, that touched off a boisterous celebration by the 31,683 fans at Spartan Stadium.
The drama and excitement of that opening match set the tone for the entire season as the quality of play, fan enthusiasm, corporate sponsorship support and media coverage served to cultivate a whole new breed of soccer fan, while at the same time, filling a void for long-time enthusiasts who recalled the days of the North American Soccer League, which folded back in 1984. Along the way, Major League Soccer took its first important steps toward achieving overall acceptance as a new American tradition, among casual and hard-core sports fan alike.
The agony of de feet. That about describes the month of April for D.C. United in its inaugural season. The club went 0-4, getting shutout twice, first in the much ballyhooed and hyped opening match, then a a week later in the Columbus Crew's home opener in a dismal performance ending in a 4-0 result that saw the league's first own-goal go against United. Then the team opened its home season at RFK three weeks into April, managing at last to score, but coming up short again for a third consecutive loss, the Los Angeles Galaxy the victors this time. The April hijinx concluded in yet another road game and home opener, as the Revolution converted a disputed penalty kick in the 78th minute to equalize, then coming out on top in the ensuing shootout.
Taken overall, May represented a turnaround of sorts for United as the club went 3-3, but the early going, when added to the gaping hole in April's win column, made the season appear to be doomed barely six weeks out. The good news was Steve Rammel and Marco Etcheverry combined with Raul Diaz Arce to defeat the visiting Dallas Burn 3-1 for the team's first victory. The bad news was the team then promptly dropped its next two, one to the Galaxy 3-1 in L.A., and then at RFK the MetroStars dealt United its second shootout loss for an overall record of 1 -6, the worst won-loss record in MLS. Then on May 15 Steve Rammel, who joined the team on April 20 after being plucked from his business school studies at the University of Massachusetts to take on a starting role at forward, put his name on the MLS map by getting the league's first hat trick in a 5-2 dismantling of Columbus. After a 3-2 loss to the Dallas Burn at the Cotton Bowl, May wrapped up on a high note with United getting its first win on the road with a 2-1 victory over the MetroStars at Giants Stadium.
A week into June United had strung together three consecutive wins by adding a shootout win - the only one of the season - at Mile High Stadium vs. the Colorado Rapids on June 2, and then three days later at RFK put on one of the finest performances of the season against the Clash for a satisfying 3-1 win to push the team's record to 5-7 and into second place in the Eastern Conference. The club finished the month with a convincing win over the New England Revolution after dropping its two prior matches on the road to the Kansas City Wiz and San Jose.
Heading into July and the midpoint of the season, United was 6-10 overall, the team's record almost a mirror image of the first half schedule that had the team playing 10 away dates and six at RFK. After splitting a home and away series with Dallas, Coach Arena's eleven finally met up with the conference-leading Tampa Bay Mutiny. The pitch was sodden from the remnants of Hurricane Bertha but the 20,014 faithful who cheered on United got the result they were looking for as Marco Etcheverry's goal in the 72nd minute was the difference in the 1-0 shutout. D.C. then split its next two matches with a lackluster 2-0 loss to New England followed by a 2-0 shutout of the Crew. Defensive breakdowns characterized the next two matches as the Wiz continued its mastery over United by sweeping the season series. By July's end the club's record stood at 9-12.
Summer's dog days proved a time of resurrection for D.C. United as the club atoned for the sins of April by going 5-2 in August, winning three of four matches on the road and taking two out-of three contests at RFK. United shutout Tampa Bay for a second time, took another from the MetroStars at Giants Stadium, and avoided a sweep by the Galaxy by knocking off LA by a 2- 1 margin in the final regular season meeting. Heading into the Labor Day weekend United had clinched a playoff berth by beating Colorado for a second lime at Mile High Stadium, the win pushing the club's record to the .500 mark for the first time at 14-14 overall.
In the season's final four weeks United dropped its first two matches in September as the MetroStars regained their form at RFK in a must-win game to remain in playoff contention. A week later the Mutiny finally got the better of play, sending D.C. back to Washington the victim of a 2-0 shutout. A playoff berth in the bag, United faced off against the Revolution on Sept. 17 looking to gain momentum for the postseason as well as get in striking distance of finishing the regular season at .500 having dropped to 14-16. In a match that looked as if it would go to a shootout, in the 89th minute Marco Etcheverry finagled a ball to Jaime Moreno breaking down the right side who forced Aidan Heaney to commit leaving Raul Diaz Arce wide open in front of the net. Diaz Arce slammed home the winner to give D.C. a thrilling 3-2 win and a sure second place finish in the conference. Four days later United closed out the regular season with a 3-1 manhandling of the Rapids, a sweep of the three-game season series with the Colorado club, and a second half of the season that saw the club reverse its earlier misfortunes to go 10-6 to finish 16-16 overall.
D.C. United opened its postseason on Sept. 24 at Giants Stadium. A persistent rain and the artificial turf didn't make for the prettiest of matches between these two rivals. The MetroStars and United twice traded goals in Game 1 with Antony De Avila and Giovanni Savarese doing the damage for New York and Raul Diaz Arce and Jaime Moreno stepping up for D.C After 90 minutes it was a 2-2 draw and 11 shootout rounds later the game was over, as Peter Vermes' shot beat Jeff Causey to the lower left corner. The match ended in controversy, however, as Vermes was permitted by referee Esse Baharmast to shoot out of order. United Coach Bruce Arena and GM Kevin Payne vigorously protested the breach of MLS shootout rules in a postgame meeting with Commissioner Logan and deputy Sunil Gulati, but the result of the match was upheld.
The series continued at RFK Stadium three days later in front of a raucous hometown crowd of 21,442. United dominated from the kickoff, recording 14 shots in the 49 minutes D.C. had the ball in the MetroStars half of the field. But the match went scoreless until the 72nd minute when Marco Etcheverry dribbled past Metros defender Matt Knowles and fired a right-footed blast past Tony Meola for his first playoff goal. Tempers flared as the MetroStars pressed for the equalizer in the waning minutes of the match, and in the 89th minute Jaime Moreno's altercation with defender Nicola Caricola resulted in Moreno's being booked with a red card and an automatic suspension for the third and deciding match. United's 1-0 victory was goalkeeper Mark Simpson's fourth shutout of the season and the sixth MetroStars-United match decided by a single goal.
It was Steve Rammel who took the suspended Moreno's place in Game 3, and it was Rammel, in a role he had reprised a number of times throughout the season, who would open the scoring in the deciding match. After a scoreless first half, Rammel put United up on the board when he played the ball back to Richie Williams who fired off a shot that deflected off Diaz Arce and the MetroStars' Miles Joseph. Rammel collected the rebound on the goal line and put it in on an easy finish. Antony de Avila equalized in the 86th minute after receiving a through pass from Roberto Donadoni. The game seemed destined to go to another shootout until second half substitute Rob Johnson brought down Marco Etcheverry in the penalty area in the 89th minute. As he had done four times in the regular season, Raul Diaz Arce calmly teed up the PK and drove it to the lower left corner as Meola lunged in the other direction. A minute later, as several hundred fans swarmed the field, D.C United was headed to the Eastern Conference finals.
The Tampa Bay Mutiny finished the regular season with the best record in MLS at 20-12, the most points with 58, and the most goals with 66. But in four season contests with United, the Mutiny managed only one win while being shutout twice (both times at RFK on July 12 and Aug. 25) and nearly a third time, as D.C. took the season series in convincing fashion 3-1, outscoring Tampa 7-3. Game 1 at RFK on Oct. 10 saw the Mutiny without the services of Carlos Valderrama and defender Frank Yallop, both out of action because of commitments to their national teams. After Raul Diaz Arce drew first blood in the 36th minute, heading to the near post a corner kick by Harkes, Roy Lassiter pounced on a Martin Vasquez corner kick that Diaz Arce attempted to clear out of danger. Lassiter one-timed a 10-yard shot to the lower far post to make it 1-1 in the 42nd minute.
Tampa carried the momentum out of the locker room and peppered Mark Simpson who came up with three crucial saves to stave off the pressing Mutiny attack, the momentum shifting back to United. The 54th minute found Steve Rammel making the most of his position around the goal as the headed a corner from Clint Peay from six yards that just barely crossed the goal line before Mark Dougherty could swat it away. Four minutes later Diaz Arce scored on a header that had been cleared by the Mutiny defense after John Maessner had sent a cross into the box. Diaz Arce's 12-yard blast was his fourth goal of the playoffs. Then in the 60th minute, with the crowd of 23,566 still on its feet, the El Salvadoran striker sprung loose on a breakaway ball served by John Harkes and finished to the lower left corner. It was his second hat trick of the year. Stunned by United's six minute scoring spree, the Mutiny never recovered as Game 1 ended with a 4-1 D.C. win and Tampa Bay headed home knowing the next game was either the beginning of their comeback or the end of the season.
"El Pibe" was back for Game 2 on Oct. 12 in Tampa, his presence giving the Mutiny a definitive lift. Giuseppe Galderisi got things started in the 14th minute slipping a perfect pass to Frankie Hejduk who sent a 12-yard shot caroming off the right post across the goalmouth. Steve Ralston was in perfect position for the rebound and buried the ball in the net from point blank range to give Tampa a 1 -0 lead that lasted through the half. The Mutiny had every reason to think about a three-game series because they were a perfect 14-0 when leading at the half. D.C. United by contrast was 0-6 on the road when trailing at the half and 1 -7 overall with a halftime deficit.
Four minutes into the second half D.C United was on its way to reversing those stats. Richie Williams controlled a deflection off a John Maessner shot from the top of the box and hit a beauty from 25 yards over the head of goalkeeper Scott Budnick to the top left corner of the net to equalize. United continued to press forward as the defensive work of Jeff Agoos and Eddie Pope had kept dangerous Roy Lassiter from getting off a shot. Then in the 82nd minute Richie Williams took a throw-in near midfield and served a long ball to Raul Diaz Arce whose 15-yard header sailed over goalkeeper Budnick's head to the far post for the score. Valderrama was ejected one minute later for a second yellow card, and it was over for the Mutiny. D.C United's fourth straight postseason win equaled its longest streak of the regular season, and Diaz Arce's six goals made him the league leader in the postseason.
The sky was industrial strength gray, a monochrome so even and flat, that the crowd of 34,643 that had donned every kind of garment imaginable to ward off the elements, turned Foxboro Stadium into this great visual stew, and took center stage along with a raging nor'easter to provide a colorful backdrop and probably the real story of the first MLS championship game.
By the Friday before the match between D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy, 42,368 tickets had been sold. Then the weather report came in. Mother Nature was coming, and she was, well, in a very bad mood.
The two day downpour she served up dumped more than four inches of rain on the Boston area. Local flooding closed roads everywhere. The lobby of the hotel where D.C. United was staying had numerous buckets scattered around the floor to catch the water dripping from its leaky ceiling. The wind was blowing 30, at times, 50 miles an hour. It was 54 degrees but felt much colder. You'd have to be crazy to venture out in such weather. Precisely.
You'd have to crazier still to expect a game contested on a waterlogged field to be any kind of well played match. But that, in the end, was what it was. The Galaxy got a handle on the conditions sooner much sooner-than United, with Eduardo Hurtado heading a Mauricio Cienfuegos cross past United keeper Mark Simpson to open the scoring in the fifth minute. In the 54th minute Chris Annas slipped between several United defenders and put the Galaxy ahead 2-0. "That lead should have been insurmountable. Who could have imagined mounting a comeback in that nasty storm," Galaxy defender Robin Fraser said.
With a two-goal deficit and time ticking away, head coach Arena went to his bench subbing Tony Sanneh for Mario Gori and then sent Shawn Medved in for John Maessner. Sanneh literally rose to the occasion when he soared over the head of Hurtado in the 73rd minute to nail a header from Etcheverry's comer kick to the near post. Arena's prescience had brought United to within one.
Nine minutes later it was Etcheverry again making things happen, this time on a restart, delivering a freekick that goalkeeper Jorge Campos weakly punched out right to the feet of United's Shawn Medved. The midfielder jumped on his chance, getting a shot off that Campos deflected, then getting his own rebound to score from six yards out. "We knew we had the momentum after the first goal and after the second goal we knew we could win," Eddie Pope said later.
Regulation time ended with a 2-2 tie, and unlike the MLS regular season and playoff games where a draw was decided in a shootout, MLS Cup '96 was going to overtime. The 34,643 faithful not only remained, they were on their feet.
Four minutes into sudden death 22-year old defender Eddie Pope positioned himself on the near post in just about the same spot he had been back on Aug. 18 when he got his first MLS goal redirecting an Etcheverry corner. It was Marco Etcheverry again on the corner, and Pope, finding himself unmarked at the near post jumped high over Curt Onalfo and banged home the winning goal.
The Galaxy's defeat at the hands of Eddie Pope and D.C. United in that moment was as swift as it was stunning. The United bench cleared in seconds to join Pope in his head first slide across the turf in celebration. Minutes later in the drenching rain Marco Etcheverry was named the game's MVP and team captain John Harkes hoisted the Alan I. Rothenberg trophy over his head. D.C. United was Major League Soccer's first championship team.
US Open Cup
D.C. United's "double" was the one that almost wasn't, as the club was not among the four MLS teams originally picked to enter the Open Cup competition. But the L.A. Galaxy begged off citing scheduling problems, and United was next in line to take up the challenge along with the Rapids, Tampa Bay, and the Dallas Burn.
United's quarterfinal match was a homecoming of sorts for Bruce Arena and his cadre of 11 former UVa players wearing the D.C. strip. The match against the Carolina Dynamo took place at UVa's Klockner Stadium on Sept. 4 in conditions that were a forebearer of MLS Cup. Torrential daylong rains left standing water on the field, and though the weather had cleared by kick off, the conditions were sloppy.
Neither team could muster much of a sustained offense through the first half, and the nil-nil draw held to the 50th minute when defender Jeff Agoos drove a left-footed corner into the six-yard box where Steve Rammel headed it to the far post to make it 1-0. With seven minutes remaining, it was Rammel again making the most of his opportunities as he took a through ball from Tony Sanneh at the top of the eighteen and one-touched it to the far post for a final of 2-0.
No sooner had United dried out from MLS Cup and its victory in the downpour at Foxboro Stadium, than the club was back in the soup again, this time against the Burn at the Cotton Bowl for the Open Cup semifinals on Oct. 27. Jaime Moreno was the hero of this monsoon, striking first in the 12th minute on a through-ball from Etcheverry that he fired low and hard from 12 yards out for the first score. Dallas was lucky to get out of the first half just one goal down, as a sustained United attack resulted in several good chances with two shots caroming off the post. In the 82nd minute, Richard Fairer failed to clear the ball from inside the six-yard box and Moreno jumped on the chance, getting off a point blank shot then snaring his own rebound and dribbling past keeper Mark Dodd for the score. The final was 2-0.
On the other side of the draw, the A-League's Rochester Rhinos pulled off a 4-3 double overtime victory over the Mutiny on Sept. 7 in Rochester when the Rhino's Chris Kennell deflected a ball past Mark Dougherty for the win. Then on Oct. 12, the day that D.C. United won the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Mutiny, the Rhinos blanked Colorado 3-0 to advance to the finals and await the outcome of the United-Dallas contest.
In the Open Cup final at RFK Stadium on Oct. 30, Raul Diaz Arce notched his seventh goal in the postseason when he took a carom off the near post in the final seconds of the first half and pushed it in from five yards to break the scoreless tie. Eighteen minutes into the second half, Tony Sanneh headed down a cross from Richie Williams to the feet of Eddie Pope who drilled a seven-yard volley to make it 2-0. Jaime Moreno collected his third goal of the Open Cup in the game's last minute, collecting a pass from Sanneh on the left and curling a 10-yarder past goalkeeper Andracki on the near post to win the "double."