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First XI: The United Way

The image is so vivid, even 10 years later. Jaime Moreno and Marco Etcheverry, a good two hours after D.C. United's 2-0 MLS Cup victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy, still dressed in full uniform, right down to their shin guards and boots. Both had the look of little kids, who'd just won some all-day tournament. Moreno had a smile that could not be erased. Etcheverry was doing his first-ever interviews in English.When a D.C. United official told them, "Guys, the bus is getting ready to leave for the party, you'd better get in the shower," Jaime and Marco looked at each other, nodded, and Jaime said, "We'll go like this!" Off they went, like two kids chasing ice cream.In this week's First XI, we once again go into essay form, remembering 1999, the final year of the D.C. United dynasty. And what a run it was.When it comes to great teams in MLS history, it all starts with United. From the midway mark of the inaugural season, it was apparent that Bruce Arena, Kevin Payne and Co. had put together a side that was going to win and entertain. Their '96 championship was a thrill-a-minute affair with a close escape in a first-round series with the MetroStars and a comeback victory in the final that remains one of the all-time classic games in MLS history. In '97 they were the favorites and handled the target on their back from start to finish with skill and confidence. In '98, while many associated with the club believe they had their best team and best season ever, they suffered one of those "on any given day" losses to the Chicago Fire. The Fire were opportunistic. D.C. was luckless.But in 1999, D.C. United cemented their place in league history. They had the most regular season wins (23, six by shootout) and points (57). They scored 65 goals (11 more than the next-best team in the league) and had a goal difference of plus-22. In the playoffs, United responded to a 5-1 thrashing at Columbus in Game 2 of the best-of-three series with a 4-0 shutout of the Crew back at RFK Stadium in Game 3. In the final vs. L.A. at Foxboro Stadium, they were the better team from start to finish in a 2-0 victory.ESPN The Magazine covered the match in a story called, "The United Way," where the passion of D.C. United's traveling supporters was chronicled, along with introducing the league to a new commissioner named Don Garber, who announced that the league was doing away with the shootout and the "official scoreboard clock." It was, in many ways, the beginning of a new era in MLS, as much as it was the end of the D.C. United reign.Was the '99 United team the greatest ever in MLS? That's a great pub argument that will never end. They're certainly on the short list. Their regular lineup consisted of then-U.S. national team players like Carlos Llamosa, Jeff Agoos and Benny Olsen. They had incredible leadership from the Bolivian tandem of Moreno and Etcheverry. And they also had those classic, perennial league role players like Richie Williams, John Maessner, Carey Talley and Roy Lassiter. Of course, Lassiter's "role" was to score a bunch of goals. More than anything, D.C. United was always more than a collection of 11 players. They were truly a team. The pieces always seemed to fit together seamlessly.As I began by saying, it's hard to believe its now a full decade since the '99 season. Ten years since we were able to play witness to the magical passing of Etcheverry, who had 17 assists in '99. And the masterful dribbling skills of Moreno, who back then had separation speed, even with the ball attached to his feet. I'm not sure MLS has ever had a player -- perhaps Preki? -- as adept at wrong-footing a defender as Moreno in his prime. I'm positive there's never been a better, more gifted passer than Etcheverry, who could use his left foot to drive 60-yard passes on a dime, or chip floating balls that would check-up right into the path of a speeding Lassiter. Those were some fun teams.And while MLS had its second dynasty come along in the new millennium, the San Jose Earthquakes/Houston Dynamo, who won three titles from '03 to '07, it's really hard to compete with the "first" anything. Isn't it? No offense to Brian Ching and Dwayne De Rosario and Eddie Robinson and others, but too little time has passed for there to be feelings of nostalgia about their run. And, though it's not the players fault, San Jose became Houston. Blue became orange. Landon Donovan moved on to Los Angeles. But Black and White will always be Black and White. The Barra Brava, RFK Stadium, the team crest, all those quaint touchstones that make D.C. United perhaps the proudest of all MLS clubs, they are etched in stone.Can you believe it's been 10 years?Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Send your comments and complaints (200 words or less, please) to Jeff at jbradleyespn2003@yahoo.com and he promises to read (but not respond to) all of them. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.