Football is about passion. Football is about trophies. Football is about titles. On this first MLS weekend, a quick glance at the schedule shows matchups like Chivas USA-Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes (the expansion team, not the the DeRo led Quakes of old)-New England Revs. At first glance the thought, “MLS is putting these matchups on TV against the NCAA Tournament?” strikes me. But then we hit Sunday and the grandaddy of them all, with the Galaxy hosting United.
I understand MLS and US Soccer have many new fans who simply don’t know or understand the history of the league or football in this nation. That’s fine, but please indulge me as to why the matchup between these two teams is always the absolute best showcase for Major League Soccer.
MLS isn’t big on tradition. The league tried to keep NASL names and NASL legacies out of MLS of the longest time. Now finally the league is succumbing to a bit of nostalgia itself in Vancouver (hopefully) and in Portland. Part of MLS’ original plan was to build its own history separate from the NASL which is perceived to have failed. But where MLS succeeded was with these two teams. Washington was shaky NASL market. Los Angeles a flat out poor one.
But in year one of MLS these two teams stood out: The Galaxy with the crazy Jorge Campos, the artful Mauricio Cienfuegos and the ever present Cobi Jones. DC United after a slow start solidified itself as the league’s signature franchise with Marco Etcheverry, Jamie Moreno, Raul Diaz Arce and young American defender from the University of North Carolina named Eddie Pope.The two would meet in the initial MLS Cup final, and young starlet Pope would win the game for DC with a golden goal in extra time. United has also won the US Open Cup that year. United won MLS Cup again in 1997 beating Colorado.
Interestingly the 1996 and 1997 MLS Cups remain the highest rated on record both garnering a 1.4 rating on ABC. By comparison the 2008 MLS Cup which did not feature either DC United or the LA Galaxy got a 0.6 rating on ABC while a mid season matchup in 2008 between the two teams got a 1.0 rating on ABC. No offense to anyone, but even in 2008 DC United and the LA Galaxy still sell better than the Columbus Crew and the New Jesery MLS franchise.
In 1998, The Galaxy would score for fun in the regular season setting what are insurmountable MLS offensive records, while DC dominated the Eastern Conference. But their eventual meeting in the MLS Cup would not happen, as upstart expansion team Chicago Fire derailed the Galaxy in the Western Conference Final. Bruce Arena, the greatest manager ever produced by the United States would leave to take over the national team and DC was broken up as a team by the salary cap.
But 1999, both teams would again standout in both the regular season and playoffs, and again would meet for the title. But after DC won MLS Cup 1999, MLS further dismantled the team again for salary cap reasons.
More titles would follow. LA in 2002 and 2005, DC in 2004. Supporters Shields, Beckham, Donovan, Gomez, and still Jaime Moreno and Benny Olsen. Traditions and names unmatched elsewhere in MLS.
These two clubs are the only MLS sides to ever win meaningful international competitions. DC United won the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 1998 defeating one Mexico’s most decorated clubs, Toluca in the final. The Galaxy won the 2000 CONCACAF Champions Cup. DC United is the only MLS club to win a match in England against a top flight side, defeating Tottenham in a midweek friendly. United also won the 1998 Inter-American Cup but soon after that triumph became a victim of the salary cap losing Tony Sanneh to Hertha Berlin and John Harkes to New England. That was the start of United’s decline.
DC United has had a consistent color scheme and look since day one. Unlike some other east coast MLS franchises they did not attempt to pander by mimicking the colors of a successful European club, nor copy the colors of an NFL with the same owner. United’s look and feel represented Football sophistication in MLS’ early days while other MLS clubs pandered and often changed color schemes, uniforms and logos.
The Galaxy became a brand name in Mexico and Central America with several key signings: Mauricio Cienfuegos, Jorge Campos Carlos Hermosillo, Martin Machon and Luis Hernandez. Later the Galaxy made MLS relevant on the world football stage by risking it all to sign David Beckham and put MLS squarely on the map of world football.
DC United has had the best atmosphere in MLS since day one. Other clubs supporters make excuses about playing in football stadiums. But United embraced RFK, a run down multi purpose facility and made it absolutely the toughest venue to play in MLS.
The Galaxy led the league in attendance more often than not in the early days playing at the large and impersonal Rose Bowl. But in 2003, the Galaxy moved into the original Soccer Specific Complex for MLS (note I did not say Soccer Specific Stadium as that would honor belongs to Columbus) and have built the feel of a European or Latin American club ground ever since.
MLS has historically punished its most successful franchises with rules to ensure parity. DC United, the greatest victim of these rules historically is now once again rebuilding. The LA Galaxy, a lesser victim through the years (but yet still a victim) now has brought in the great Bruce Arena to run the club but is suffering from taking one for the team: stepping out and signing David Beckham at enormous cost to help MLS as a league and Football in the United States. The signing as we all know did not work out, but contrary to the conspiracy theories of other clubs fans, the Galaxy have in fact not been given special compensation by the league for taking this risk but in fact punished to point where they could not sign the type of supporting players Beckham needed to be successful.
(For the record I would state the Chicago Fire have been the second greatest historical victim of MLS imposition of socialism on the league.)
The Galaxy win at home 2-1. Eddie Lewis creates goal and Landon Donovan scores one to prove Bayern Munich made a mistake.