Twenty years ago, on Nov. 21, 1999, D.C. United captured its third MLS Cup in four seasons to cement its legacy as the first true dynasty in league history, a claim that would be strengthened when the Black-and-Red captured another title five years later. And on that balmy November afternoon at Foxboro Stadium, before a raucous crowd of nearly 45,000 fans, United bested the LA Galaxy in a 2-0 victory that served as the capstone for a remarkable campaign.
That season, under the direction of first-year coach Thomas Rongen, United posted the best record in MLS (23-9), scored the most goals in MLS (65) and finished with the best defensive performance in franchise history (43 goals conceded). Defender Jeff Agoos, midfielder Marco Etcheverry and forward Jaime Moreno were all named to the MLS Best XI, tied with the Galaxy for the most players from a single team.
Over the next few weeks, we will recreate the ’99 season through the memories of those who lived it: the players, coaches and staff members who exorcised their demons from a crushing defeat in the 1998 MLS Cup to hoist a trophy and parade it through the streets of Washington D.C., rewarding those faithful fans who had stuffed RFK Stadium to its capacity all year.
Our next viewpoint comes from winger John Maessner, who reunited with the Black-and-Red partway through the season as part of a trade with the Miami Fusion. Maessner had won two titles with United in ’96 and ’97 before the Fusion selected him in the MLS Expansion Draft. He returned a year and a half later, in late July of ’99, and immediately reclaimed a spot in the starting lineup, chipping in three goals and two assists in 11 games.
In all, Maessner spent four seasons with the club and won three MLS Cup trophies during that span. He finished with seven goals and 15 assists in 42 career starts for United.
Q: If I’m correct, you arrived at the club partway through the ’99 season, right?
A: Yeah, yeah. Traded over. I played in D.C. in ’96 and ’97, the first two years. I came over from Germany nine games or so into the first season in ’96. Then I got picked up in the expansion draft by Miami, so I was down there for the ’98 season. And then a little bit into ’99, I got traded back to D.C., which was a happy day.
So it sounds like if you had your druthers, you would have stayed in D.C. the whole time?
Yeah, for sure. We had something pretty special going on in D.C. We loved it there. I was always open to new challenges and I understood how the league worked and you could get picked up in an expansion draft and get traded and all that. I mean, it was exciting to get to go down to Miami and play with an expansion team. That was a great experience, too. But probably if I had my choice, I probably would have stayed in D.C.
In August and September there was an 11-game win streak, and I’m looking at the lineups now. It looks like your first start was July 25 against New England and that’s when you recorded your first assist of the season for D.C. as well. What do you remember about your role when you came back?
I was excited to get back. Thomas (Rongen) and everyone knew me real well, the players and the coaches and everyone in the organization. It was easy to come back and just jump right in. I think I might have started the first game. I don’t remember exactly the situation. Can you tell there? Did I start?
You did start the first game.
Yeah so that was real nice, you know? It’s always nice to go back and feel like you’re really needed and wanted. I showed up and I think the team was doing OK, but we just wound up — for whatever reason, it wasn’t because of me, I played my role — going on a nice little winning streak there and kind of really jelled as a group. It’s always nice to go back to a team that you just fit in really well with, with the players and the staff and the whole club. That was great for me and my family.
What was your impression of working with Thomas having also played for Bruce Arena previously?
We were all so connected, so it was real comfortable, you know? Thomas had been around. I played for Thomas earlier on before MLS with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, so I knew him real well. It just seemed like we had a special chemistry. It was just a special group that lasted for several years there with Bruce, of course, and Kevin Payne and Dave Sarachan and even Bob Bradley just all putting that together in the beginning and bringing in a lot of players from the University of Virginia, so we were just all real comfortable.
Then all the players, you know, Marco and Jaime and everyone else. That was just a special, special moment because that doesn’t happen very often where everything just kind of clicks. It’s not easy to create that. You just have to give Bruce and Kevin and everyone so much credit for bringing the right people all together and then just have it work out that well.
So yeah, coming back in ’99 after being there two years and winning two championships and then going to Miami, you know, an expansion team that struggled a little bit, I was happy there and fine, but yeah, it was exciting to get back to D.C. I just jumped right back into it and felt like they needed me and they were excited to have me. I started that first game, we went on a little bit of a run and wound up winning it that year, too. You can’t make up a better story. I’m just real blessed — I’d love you to include that — I’m just real blessed to have been a part of it.
You mentioned the winning streak. When you got to D.C. the record was 12-7, and then a month later it was 23-7. You ripped off 11 straight wins. When that team was at its best, playing the highest-level soccer it could, what was working? What was the style?
Everything. Everything just clicked. And we were all so comfortable. Obviously you have to have a great coach, and we had that. And you have to have great assistant coaches, and we had that. You have to have all the right younger players, older players, players that are going to play all the different roles, and we had all those that fit the pieces of the puzzle together. We just got along.
It wasn’t perfect, you know? It’s never going to be perfect. But we just got along and enjoyed it. That’s one thing that Bruce and Thomas, you know, are very good at is making it so you’re enjoying it and you want to be there and you give everything at training every day. And then game time, we just expected to win. You just knew you were going to win.
What do you remember about playing in RFK Stadium and the environment there?
It’s just so much history in that stadium and it was just so cool. I mean, we felt like we had the best fans at that time. We probably did, you know, back then. La Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles. Maybe you haven’t experienced it, but that whole level would rock. It was probably dangerous. But the whole thing would shake and rock like two feet, that whole lower section.
The only other stadium that I know that moves like that is La Bombonera in Argentina. Way up top it sways a little bit. I’ve been up there, too, with Marco Etcheverry. We went when I was the director of youth development (at D.C. United). We went over to Argentina and we sat way up top, way up top. They put us up there, and that’s where I wanted to be.
It was special (with D.C. United) because it was a new league but we felt like our fans, they weren’t new. They were fired up and organized and passionate, and it was pretty cool. We felt like we had the best fans in the league, and that always helps. To go into a stadium where it’s loud and a lot of energy and you know the fans really support you, it was great. It was just another piece of the puzzle that just was fitting perfectly those first few years.
On the offensive end of the field, you don’t see too many teams with four players who have double-digit assists, which is what United had that year. A lot of times you don’t necessarily see a guy rack up 17 assists like Marco did that season. When you think about some of those players up top — whether it was Jaime or Marco or Roy Lassiter or Ben Olsen — did you believe teams would have trouble stopping you from scoring every game?
Yeah, we didn’t (think teams could stop us). The training was so good. We felt sharp. We liked playing with each other. And things just clicked on the field. You just kind of knew that things were going to work out and you’re going to create lots of chances and just get after teams. I mean, it was fun.
People ask me all the time, you know, who is the best player you ever played with. I played with a lot of great players, with and against a lot of great players. But Marco was just unbelievable. He could not even be looking at me, you know? I’d make a 30-, 40-, 50-yard run and he wouldn’t even be looking at me and it would just be right there on my foot on the wing, because I played a lot out on the wings, you know? He was just incredible. He could put the ball wherever he wanted to. He just did what he wanted with the ball. That really helps to have a player like that on your team.
Jaime, too. He just kind of did what he wanted to do out there and made it look so easy. We were blessed to have those guys on the team. And they fit in perfectly with all of us, so that was the thing that worked so well.
By the time you reached the playoffs in ’99 the team had already won the Supporters’ Shield, you’d scored 11 more goals than any team in the league and also posted D.C. United’s best defensive season in franchise history. And then you kind of breezed through the first round of the playoffs in two games against Miami. The big one was Columbus in the Eastern Conference Finals. That went the full three games. What do you remember about that series?
I think we were so confident that it didn’t even bother us losing 5-1 (in Game 2). We just had an off day. I can’t remember exactly what went wrong that day. We must have just had an off day. We knew it was an off day. We didn’t play well. We gave some goals obviously that day, which was kind of rare. I just don’t remember us panicking or worrying about it too much at all. I mean, obviously it shakes you a little bit and you say, ‘All right, guys, come on, we’ve got to refocus a little bit here.’ But no one — there wasn’t anybody in the front office to the players and coaches, I don’t think anyone thought that we were going to lose that series, you know? We walked on the field that day, and yeah, what was the score when they came back to RFK?
It was 4-0.
Yeah, so we took care of business. And that’s just the way it was going to go, you know? I don’t think anyone could have seen it going any other way.
In that game you had a goal and three assists from Marco, two goals from Roy and then a goal and assist from Jaime. Does that kind of speak to the idea that when this team needed something, they had core veteran guys who were able to step up and get it done?
Oh yeah. I mean, having Roy on your team, he was just going to score goals just like Raul Diaz Arce always scored goals. I think any good team, you have to have that player that’s going to score goals in big games. And that’s what Roy did. Jaime, too. And you knew Marco was going to come up with big plays. And then all of the supporting cast, we were just all there putting in hard work. But really relying on our top few guys — Marco, Jaime, Roy — to finish. We just kind of knew it was going to happen because we were all going to do our part and make it happen.
What do you remember about the buildup to MLS Cup? There were eight days between the end of the Columbus series and the time you kicked off in Foxboro. What do you recall about that week and what did you think of the Galaxy as a team?
The first year was pretty special in ’96. We played in Foxboro also, and you couldn’t really play soccer out in that weather. So then going back three years later, that was pretty special, pretty unique for us. We had already been there and already won there, so that was added to the whole part of it that we were already there and did that in ’96. We were going to come back in ’99 and do it again.
It was nice for me because I’m from the East Coast, you know, so my friends and family were able to go up there again. I still have pictures of all my buddies, just friends and family, hanging around before and after the game, just celebrating. Lots of really good memories.
The game starts and it’s 19 minutes in when Jaime pokes the ball into the net. I remember seeing the highlights and the celebration where basically the entire team just jumps over the advertising board and starts celebrating with the D.C. United fans. I think there was confetti coming down from somewhere. What goes through your mind when you take the 1-0 lead?
I remember that goal. It was a little bit strange just rolling around there like right on the goal line. It’s just kind of rolling around and he just kind of poked it in. Of course you’re excited, about as excited as you can get in your career. But also we knew, we kind of just believed that we were going to win that game. We were good enough and we were the better team. LA was very, very good. But, you know, when you have a group of guys like that and you have confidence and you’re playing well, you’re not really thinking about the other team and how good they are.
I mean, yeah, you have to prepare. We were prepared. We knew what we were up against. We knew the players that we had to deal with and that they were very good. But it’s more about believing in ourselves and just knowing that we’re going to step on that field and give everything we have to win that game for each other and for our fans. When you score a goal like that, it just confirms everything and you’re excited of course and you just keep going. It doesn’t get any better than that when you’re an athlete.
The Galaxy didn’t create too many chances over the course of that game, but two minutes into stoppage time at the end of the first half, Cobi Jones appeals for that penalty when you were covering him in the right corner. Did you worry at the time that it was a penalty and maybe it was going to lead to a goal that would be the equalizer?
My friends still send me that clip and say, ‘Hey, that should have been a PK.’ It was close. It just depends on the ref. That could have gone either way. I was kind of confident because I knew that I wasn’t trying to take him down, you know? I was just trying to get there. He’s one of the quickest kids in the league. That was my strength was being quick, too. I recovered just enough and I think the referee saw that, you know? I recovered just enough and it wasn’t really a foul, you know? But it could have gone either way for sure.
And then a minute later, the Galaxy have a goalkeeping error and there’s Ben Olsen playing Johnny-on-the-spot to pop it in from 25 or 30 yards. So in the span of two minutes it changes from thinking you might have conceded a penalty — and potentially the equalizing goal — to being 2-0 up. Did you think the game was in the bag?
Well, you have such a good feeling. I mean, jeez. You’ve got to be careful in soccer with a 2-0 lead of course, but man, I’d rather be 2-0 up than down for sure. Yeah, we had a really good feeling. You’ve just got to be careful that you don’t relax and let them back in the game. I think we did a pretty good job of that. But yeah, going into the locker room 2-0 you just feel so good. You just gotta be smart and come back out and take care of business. But yeah, for Ben, that’s just the way things went for Ben. He was just in the right spot, just a great player and such a hard worker so that was great for him to get that.
When the final whistle sounds at the end of stoppage time and you win another title — three championships in four years like you said — and also achieve a goal that this team had specifically set after coming up short the year prior, how would you describe the feeling of winning it again? Did it feel like you were something of a dynasty at that point?
It was awfully special, that’s for sure. When you win like that and you win a championship, and then to be able to say you won three out of the first four, yeah, I remember it was pretty emotional. I had all my family and friends there, so it was emotional. Just to have my family there and my friends, and to have worked really hard with the team and individually to get to a point where you can finish a season and finish a championship game completely, and just wind up on top again, it’s special.
And then you just know that you’re just blessed because it doesn’t just happen. And it has nothing to do with just you. There’s so many people and coaches and even the front office that just puts all their heart and soul into it. It was a great feeling. It’s a special memory for me. All those memories are real special for me. I guard them. You can talk about them with your friends and your family for a lifetime.
One thing that my wife still gives me a hard time about is I threw my MLS Cup medal into the stands, into the crowd. Those fans are so awesome, they deserved it, so I didn’t even think twice. I just gave it to them and I threw it up there. But my wife gives me a hard time because I don’t have one anymore.
What was the reception like when you returned to D.C.?
We went to the White House only once there. I think they kind of combined a few of our championships and said, ‘OK, we better let these guys go to the White House finally.’ And then I know we had a great parade. After winning three of them, I think we figured out how to do it right. Went to the White House, had a great parade. It was awesome. I think it was Independence square or Liberty Square where we met, and then we went through the city. The fans were great. It was a lot of fun. Family and friends there with us. Just a lot of fun. So many great memories.