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 Carey Talley, a plug-and-play defender who appeared in 29 games and logged 1,603 minutes that season — a total comparable to the likes of Etcheveryy (1,890 minutes), Eddie Pope (1,647 minutes) and Carlos Llamosa (1,423 minutes). Talley had been the No. 14 overall pick by United in the 1998 draft and made 124 appearances for the club from 1998-2001 and another cameo in 2010. Talley won an MLS Cup, a CONCACAF Champions Cup and an Interamerican Cup during his time with the Black-and-Red.
Q: What was the mood around the team when preseason was getting started in 1999? Did you know the team had some real potential that year?
A: Yeah, I would say so. We were coming off losing to the Chicago Fire there (in 1998 MLS Cup). And we kind of felt like winning the CONCACAF (Champions) Cup as well as the Interamerican Cup, to not have finished off the ’98 season with that (MLS) championship was kind of a bad taste in our mouth. But, you know, coming into that season obviously Thomas (Rongen) had come in and had a group of guys that was very well intact from the season before, as well as other guys that had had a full season under their belt playing in some very difficult competitions. I think in January everybody was quite focused for this upcoming campaign.
How would you describe the transition from Bruce Arena to Thomas Rongen? What did guys think about it? What was the adjustment process like?
Well, you know, I don’t think there was a huge adjustment. I think Thomas tried to come in and I think he recognized what Bruce had built, Bruce and Dave (Sarachan) had built. He didn’t want to change things a whole lot. He had this team that had quite a few of them together for the past three years and so he was very wise to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to keep things going.’ We picked up guys like Diego Soñora and John Maessner had come in, different guys that were ready to add to the bill. I think he did a very good job in just saying, ‘Hey, we’re going to keep this going, we’re going to keep the same mindset,’ and he did just that. I think it was a very good on Thomas’ part.
He and Bruce, I think, were good friends at the time and still are obviously. But I think that Bruce’s influence, he was still around D.C., so you got to see him. But still, a ton of credit to Thomas. He still had a team, he still had a group of players to manage, and he was able to go out and get everybody on the same page and continue to keep ticking and go and lay claim to what we really felt should have been ours the year before.
From an emotional standpoint or from a dressing room standpoint, who were some of the guys that were integral in terms of making sure the group stayed focused and really stepped up from a leadership role?
I think that fell on a lot of the veteran guys. Guys like Jeff Agoos and Richie Williams, they were more the vocal guys. You had guys like Eddie Pope, Carlos Llamosa, Marco Etcheverry who were vocal to a certain extent, but they really led by the way that they played. From there on you had Roy Lassiter, who is a goal scorer. He’s all about business and (saying), ‘Hey, I want to score. That’s what I want to do to help drive the team. I need to be set up. I need to be scoring goals.’ So that in itself, within the locker room and also on the field, helped drive players.
You won 11 of the first 14 games that season When you come out and you’re that hot from the start, I imagine that that just reinforced some of the expectations the team had already placed on itself after ’98.
Yeah we had a bar, and we wanted to make sure we measured up to it every day. There were days in training where I would come out and feel like that training was more difficult than one of the games that we played in that week. Just from a competitive standpoint, from a drive — and that’s just the way it was. And then you had guys like myself who were fighting to get on the field, so you go and you have that from guys 12 through 22 (on the roster) who were all fighting to get on the field and it means so much just to get into a game and to play. Hey, I want to drive myself to be on the field as many times as I can.
I remember each game I felt like it would kill me not to be on the field (if I wasn’t in the starting lineup). Like hey, how am I going to get on the field? How am I going to play? How am I going to keep going? And so I think a lot of people had that mindset that wanted to come in and contribute. Winning 11 of the first 14, I don’t remember that. But it doesn’t surprise me because that’s kind of the standard that that group went out with every single day. And really I remember winning a lot with that team, with that group of guys. And that’s what was expected.
What do you remember about the environments at RFK Stadium?
For me, it was a fantastic environment all the way around. I believe they started doing the Black Out where we’d have our bigger games and they’d have the Black Out (in the stands). I mean, the Screaming Eagles and La Barra Brava just, you know, bouncing up and down. You felt like walking into the stadium and it was just like, this is cool. Just the rush that you get, the feeling, the fans.
The fans were so much more knowledgeable. They appreciated the little things that players did and situations that you got out of. And the roars of the crowd just didn’t come with, you know, a special move pulled off or a strike on goal. It was appreciation for the finer parts of the game. That for me is something that I’ll remember that’s quite different from other stadiums or teams that I played for.
But in saying that, just the love that was shown for the supporters’ groups game in and game out. I mean, hey, they knew they were in the midst of something very special and they came out and they wanted to be just as big a part of it as we were. And they were. And they were. The atmosphere that was created in that stadium, it was special to me.
What was the group like off the pitch? That doesn’t necessarily indicate success on the field, but were you guys close? Did players go out and play golf, socialize on the weekends, spend time with families?
I think for the most part, yeah. I was 23 or 24 (years old). I wasn’t always looking to go hang out with the families and stuff — but in saying that, I knew all the wives. Yes, there were after-parties after games, everybody gets together, you know all the kids, you’re holding the kids of other players, you know? So there was a family environment.
And to be honest, I think a large part of that were guys like Jaime (Moreno) and Marco (Etcheverry), who had such a big following of people that cared about them within the city. The supporters’ groups, we’d go and hang out with them and enjoy times at restaurants with them and get to be close friends with guys in this fan club and in the supporters’ groups. I think that part of the team, the bringing together of guys, was due in large part to those two guys. They’re charismatic, they always wanted to hang out, be good guys, enjoy each other’s company.
And for me being a second-year pro at that time, guys like me and Ben Olsen, we couldn’t have had better guys to look up to in this league than guys like Marco and Jaime and Jeff Agoos and Richie Williams. Then guys that are a little bit older like Eddie Pope and Carlos (Llamosa). It was a great environment.
You mentioned how throughout the season you were always fighting and striving to get on the field because there were some games where you started and some games where you didn’t. But I’m looking at the playoff run and you had carved out a spot. You started every game of the playoff run. So what is it that you did, or what is it that you showed the coaching staff, to sort of cement that spot by the end of the year?
Diego Soñora had gone down with an injury toward the end of the year. This is a guy that played at Boca Juniors and played in massive games. I had been plugged in as a center back. I had been plugged in as a holding midfielder. I had been plugged in as a right back. I think throughout that time, Thomas (Rongen) and Dave (Sarachan) knew what they were going to get out of me. Diego had gone down with an injury, and it’s one of those things that it’s (the same for) all professional athletes: When you have your time, are you in the right spot at the right time? And unfortunately sometimes that means injuries to other players. Unfortunately it’s career-ending injuries, it’s unfortunate incidents — whatever it may be. And fortunately for me, I got a chance because Diego was struggling with the injury at the end of the season
So I showed quite well in the first game (without Soñora) and I think the plan was before the Columbus series they were going to start Diego. And yeah, I wasn’t too happy about it, but I knew what the focus was. Diego went through the warmups before the game, and I remember Thomas coming over and saying, ‘Hey, make sure you’re ready, because he’s not going to go.’ And I remember that being the moment where I was like, ‘I can’t let go of this. Ever.’
So yeah, I went and had good form and played well in the final and that January ended up getting called up for the first national team camp for myself. It’s part of being a pro athlete. Are you ready for that fight every day and are you ready for the grind? Do you love the grind? It took me — I couldn’t tell you how many games in a row I started in that season. I know I played a decent amount of minutes in the season and things like that. But those last playoff games, I was able to grind it out and stay focused. I was able to take that opportunity, and it was pretty special for me and helped win an MLS championship. Those things you remember forever.
In the Columbus series you win 2-1, then you lose 5-1 on the road, and then you come back and you win 4-0 at RFK. Was there a players-only meeting or was there a yelling fest at practice between the 5-1 loss and the 4-0 defeat? Because obviously something turned around.
It was kind of crazy. If I remember right, we went up 1-0 in that game in Columbus. And I remember (thinking), ‘Man, we’re going to win it here. We’re going to win it in Columbus.’ And then I couldn’t tell you what happened after that because it just went parachuting quick.
And yeah, it was 5-1, but I don’t recall there being a players-only meeting or having one of the coaches (yell at us). Yeah guys were mad and the locker room was probably pretty fiery afterward, but I think we knew we can’t do anything about this right now. What’s the focus? And the focus was that next game.
I have very good memories of that game and just going in feeling like I know that we’re going to win this, I feel like we are. And from the outset of (Game 3) we set the tone quick and yeah, that was a fun evening all the way from (Roy Lassiter’s) half bicycle to Marco’s free kick, which I’ve always loved because whenever I see it on TV, Marco had me stand over the ball with him. Yeah, I could strike a good dead ball and it was in a good range for me. But I think every person in that stadium knew who was hitting it, even me.
There was a week between that game and MLS Cup. Do you remember what the buildup was like?
The excitement for us was the things around the city that you’d see. I remember driving through the city and there was a building with our full jersey — it was being constructed and our full jersey was drawn from side to side on it. And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ So there was a buzz around the city and just places that I would frequent, you know, when you walked in people that had seen you, heck, almost every day that you’d go in there they were excited about it. So I do remember there being just excitement around the whole team.
For me as a young player, just feeling like you’re part of something pretty big, not just for a team, this means something to a lot of people in the city that you see all the time. That was always a neat time for me that I can remember. Heck, I remember the last training session that we had in Boston (before the MLS Cup). It was at Harvard. It was just one of those things where it felt right that last day, everything felt like it was gonna be good.
How about the game itself? Were you the type to be nervous? Did you find yourself anxious that day?
I don’t recall there being a ton of nerves for me. I had played in the CONCACAF Champions Cup in my first year and was on the field against a very good Toluca team (from Mexico) with guys who had just played in the World Cup. So that was a very good experience for me in terms of championship games and the right mentality to take into it. So I felt very good going into that game, you know?
What do you remember about Jaime’s goal in the 19th minute to go up 1-0?
Well I remember kind of jumping up and down a couple times before it even went in like, ‘Oh, is it time to celebrate yet?’ because I was kind of blocked a little bit. ... I mean, Jaime is always a sneaky forward around the goal. But I think just that goal in general was just — it was almost like yes, finally, it’s gonna go our way. And I remember him running and jumping over the sign boards there, running to our supporters’ group there. I remember climbing in with the fans and paper and stuff going everywhere. I remember that moment quite well. I think I almost fell on my face on the little concrete path that was just off the grass there. For me, that’s just another special moment in that season.
What do you remember about the celebration once the final whistle blew and you get to lift MLS Cup?
I remember just the happiness of the whole thing. And for me, the moment that rings forward in my head is that was one of the last games that my dad got to see me play live. So I remember looking up and seeing him and my brother and that being a special moment. They’d flown in from Memphis. I remember that moment. They’re pretty big fellas, both of them are tall guys with broad shoulders. Just seeing both of them waving and being like, ‘Holy shit, you guys are the only guys in the stadium up there. This is crazy!’
But I also remember looking at guys like Jaime and Marco and there’s full-on tears coming down and thinking, man, this is something really special. For guys that had been pros for a long time, it takes so much to win something and to complete a season with a group of people and say hey, we did something as a group and we got to this point. It doesn’t come often, and that’s what it made me realize, especially as I kept going on in my career. I was like, ‘Oh, this is the norm. I’m just going to be part of teams that all we do is win.’ Well, when you move on to different groups that’s not always the way it shakes out.
Me and Ben, I remember grabbing him because we came out of college together. He was at the University of Virginia, I was at North Carolina. And I remember just during the game like, you know, that was my dude. I was going to try to help him and push him and get him into the right spots. And I remember when he scored (to give United a 2-0 lead) it was just like, ‘That’s my guy! That’s my guy! We did it!’
There’s a lot of things that come through (my mind), little tiny moments with just a few people that have stuck. I couldn’t tell you what happened that night afterward at the hotel, or wherever we ended up going, because that was good, but the real emotion was there right when the whistle blew.