Jeff Bradley: MLS Cup 2000 still vivid for Sporting KC's Kerry Zavagnin, Real Salt Lake's CJ Brown
For C.J. Brown, it’s a memory that still makes him shake his head more than a dozen years later.
And for Kerry Zavagnin? The same game elicits a nod and a smile.
The 2000 MLS Cup final at RFK Stadium was just that type of game.
And 13 years after they met in one of the most memorable MLS title games in the league’s history, Zavagnin and Brown will clash once again, this time as assistant coaches in the MLS Cup on Saturday (4 pm ET, ESPN, UniMas, TSN2/RDS in Canada).
Brown – the blue-collar defender who was the face of the Chicago Fire for more than a decade and won a Cup with the club in 1998 – is now an assistant under Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis, while the longtime Kansas City Wizards midfielder Zavagnin is the right-hand man for Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes.
And while both want it known that they are not looking for any credit in their team’s quest for the Cup, they have tried to pass down a little bit from what they experienced in the 2000 final, when Kansas City topped Chicago 1-0.
“I don’t want to act like I’ve got too much wisdom,” says Zavagnin, who joined the Kansas City coaching staff in 2009 after a standout 11-year career in MLS. “But in the process of giving our guys some encouragement, you might tell them these chances don’t come along often.”
The 2000 title game was one of three appearances for Brown, who joined the RSL staff in 2011. He won a title in 1998 and lost again in 2003 to the San Jose Earthquakes.
“You just want guys to understand that you never know when you’re going to get the chance to play in another final,” he says. “I was lucky enough to be part of a team that won the MLS Cup in 1998, when I was a rookie. It turned out to be the only Cup final I won.”
Kansas City won the 2000 final over Chicago on the back of an early goal by Danish striker Miklos Molnar and a stellar performance from goalkeeper Tony Meola, who was named league MVP before he earned the same honor for the title game.
The Fire outshot the Wizards 20-6 and hit two shots off the crossbar – one by Hristo Stoitchkov in the early going and then a tantalizing chance gone awry from Diego Gutierrez early in the second half – and Kansas City’s rugged defense held on just long enough to complete a memorable run to the Supporters’ Shield and the postseason title.
“The final in one way was a symbol of what our team was all about,” Zavagnin says. “We were a very tough defensive team, with a lot of grit and Tony in goal. So, winning a game 1-0 was something that team was able to do.”
Says Brown: “Oh man, that was a tough one. I remember we created a lot of scoring chances, but when it came to putting the ball in the net, or even really testing Tony, we just didn’t.”
It’s not surprising all these years later that Brown, a tough, physical defender, and Zavagnin, a savvy holding midfielder, have gravitated toward coaching. Especially not when you ask one about the other.
“Kerry was just one of those guys who knew how to position himself properly, play simple and always work for the good of the team,” Brown says. “He was a big part of that team.”
And Zavagnin, on Brown?
“C.J. played in three and four-man systems in Chicago,” he says. “And it was clear that he did a lot of homework on how to stop some of the best forwards in the league.”
Brown says the education has continued working for Kreis, who happened to be one of the strikers he tried to shut down during many Chicago-Dallas clashes.
“I think what you’ve seen with Salt Lake is what happens when a coach is given time to instill a system,” Brown says. “Jason has a way he wants our team to play and he knows the type of player who fits.
“When I look at Kansas City, I see the same thing with Peter Vermes. He’s built a team on a system.”
Which system will prove better on Saturday at Sporting Park is anybody’s guess. But if the 2000 final taught either Brown or Zavagnin one simple lesson, it’s that there’s no sense predicting what will happen when everything is on the line.
“The 2000 MLS Cup final is proof that the game can be cruel,” says Brown.
“When it’s one game,” adds Zavagnin, “you just never know what can happen.”