Columnist corner

all fade away, as fleeting and wistful as a beautiful girl's face in a train window.

I'm a romantic. I think about the end of things and notice beautiful girls in train windows. Maybe she smiles for a moment. Maybe she doesn't notice me. Maybe she notices me and doesn't smile. Maybe she both smiles and doesn't smile in the same moment.

It doesn't matter, really. Only the moment matters. The moment when I see her and the moment that she is gone down the tunnel. Those moments linger, always will, but they do so in their own way. They linger the way we want them to linger.

For me, MLS Cup 2004 will linger in Brian Carroll's dribble across the top of the Kansas City box before springing Alecko Eskandarian for his first goal. ... It will linger in Eskandarian's clear handball, setting up his second goal and sparking the question among more than one observer, "Why isn't Abiodun Okulaja, the recently named Referee of the Year, refereeing this game?" ... It will linger in Ben Olsen, wily and more focused on the end result than anyone else on the field, killing precious seconds on a late throw in, tussling with Jose Burciaga, whirling up down and all around. ... It will linger in Freddy Adu's forward dashes and the crowd's collective inhale ... And it will linger in Jimmy Conrad's hung head, in Ryan Nelsen's easy-come-easy-go smile, in Bob Gansler's resigned stoicism, in Peter Nowak's fierce satisfaction.

The final whistle. Brutal, unforgiving, shrill, euphoric, cathartic, grateful. In the duration of those last tweets the athlete let's his truest emotions out. A few seconds to unbridled joy or visceral heartbreak.

Either way, in the aftermath, things rush back to equilibrium. Sweep up the confetti and the plastic nacho containers and the ticket stubs. Take down the MLS Cup 2004 banners and flags; they already look dated. Put away the yellow plastic horns. Fold up the mascot costumes. Call home. Ice down your ankle. And while you do that, someone you don't know will pack up the trophy you've worked for all season, all your life, really, and now that you've smeared it with your sweaty hands and careful kisses, that person will take it somewhere else, anywhere but here because here on this patch of grass nothing can be done until next April.

Connolly: Time, don't let it slip away

Sunday, 10:26 p.m. PT

"We're going streaking!"

That was the phrase du jour amongst the champagne-soaked D.C. United players in the locker room Sunday afternoon. Done in perfect Will Farrell-speak, of course.

"We're going through the quad to the gymnasium," adds Mike Petke, who may very well be the happiest man in Southern California right now.

In a way, D.C. United's performance down the stretch and right through the playoffs was as just as "Old School" as the movie they were quoting. In their 3-2 whipping of the Wizards, it looked like the powerful United teams of the '90s. The type that not only won, but inspired others in the sport with their collective efforts and understated role players.

Ryan Nelsen was Eddie Pope. Bryan Namoff was Jeff Agoos-like. Alecko Eskandarian's left foot was as strong on Sunday as Marco Etcheverry's ever was. Brian Carroll cleaned up the middle like Richie Wiliams. And Jaime Moreno was, well, Jaime Moreno.

D.C. United: Same as it ever was.

But it won't be the same next year, and you felt it in the locker room. There was a lot of celebrating going on, yet done in a "high school graduation party" type of way. United players knew their friendships would last a lifetime, but they wondered if and when they'd ever all be together again.

Whether it was Eskandarian or Petke or Carroll or Dema Kovalenko, they all were smart enough to say "if we lose Ryan Nelsen" or "we may not have Earnie Stewart." But they knew. Everyone did. The embraces with these players were held a little longer and the whispers in each other's ears were a little softer.

This won't be a fire sale in true Florida Marlins fashion, but the team that triumphed in 2004 will not look the same in '05. So as happy as they were, there was sadness mixed in once the initial shock of winning the Cup passed and the thongs of media had begun to clear out of the locker room.

A feeling so sweet, yet bittersweet.

Nothing a little streaking can't cure.

Palace: Final thoughts

Sunday, 7:09 p.m. PT

Strange finish to a wonderful MLS Cup Final, as I'm still waiting for Kansas City to really throw the kitchen sink at 10-man United. Full credit to the Wizards for stopping the D.C. onslaught and making things interesting for the last half hour, but Bob Gansler's boys just looked a bit too devoid of ideas (and sometimes urgency) going forward in the end.

I'm still shaking my head at this one point relatively late in the match when K.C. had a dead ball in United's end, and the Wizards had three players back in their end keeping an eye on the sole figure of Jaime Moreno. Three players back? Throw everyone in the box! Get Bo Oshoniyi up there! Have Preki and Chris Klein limp out there when no one's looking! Bring back Miklos Molnar and throw his follicly-challenged rear end up front!

But alas, the reserved style is what got the Wizards here, and you can take the team out of Kansas City, but ...

***

You definitely saw how thin Gansler's choices were for offense off the bench. Queen of the Palace actually may have put it best after watching Wizards substitute striker Matt Taylor blow way too many chances: "That was one of the worst substitutions in MLS history." We really mince words in our household, as you can tell.

***

Anyone remember in this week's TCS where I advised anyone coming to Planet LA to shoot over to Vegas for a day trip and plunk $1,000 down on Dema getting sent off in the Cup Final? Anyone take my advice? Why the &*%!* didn't I?

***

Not that you asked, but my vote for Man of the Match went to Jaime Moreno. The guy was very simply the best player on the field.

***

I'm sure a lot will be written about the goalkeeping in this match, and it definitely was a big part of the story. On that note, I would not look for either to be starting for their respective clubs when they meet next time. Poor Tony Meola must've been absolutely dying inside watching Bo Oshoniyi get chewed up and spit out by the pressure of a Cup Final. On the other end, I hear Nick Rimando is high on the shopping list of Thomas Rongen, who also might be eyeing Metro-non-grata Jonny Walker.

***

Only minor bummer I could find in a wonderfully-run event Sunday in Carson was the trophy celebration was set at the end of the field completely opposite all the boisterous traveling fans. C'mon, they traveled all the way from D.C., move the stage another 120 yards down the pitch and use them as a colorful backdrop.

I was about to say they have to change that for next year, but it won't matter ... I just remembered the Cup Final is in Frisco and we FC Dallas fans are gonna be everywhere when the lads lift the trophy.

***

You think Cup Final weekend is fun, now starts the real fireworks -- Expansion Draft week. Let the wheeling and dealing begin.

I'll stoke the fire by saying I did see some Fire and Metro execs pow-wowing at one point (Heard the rumors yet? There are some big names flying around), while the FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake people looked like they may
have been chatting about more than last week's episode of "Desperate Housewives."

Palace: Waiting for 'Celo

Sunday, 3:40 a.m. PT

Just got home from the MLS Gala event Saturday night at fancy-schmancy Universal River Walk and full marks to MLS for putting on a big-time event. So wanna guess who was the most popular person in the place?

No, it was not Lindsay Lohan, shamelessly following me around all night after word leaked out that she and her "That 70's Show" boyfriend have gone splitsville. And, no, it was not even yours truly, even though I was stylishly decked out in all black even before I knew of the sad passing of hip-hop's O.D.B.

Actually, it was none other than Marcelo Balboa, who everyone and their grandmother suddenly seem to want to talk to right now. Wonder why? I saw a lot of people slipping him pieces of paper. Are those stock tips? I don't get it ...

***

Among their many bells and whistles on the MLS Cup broadcast, ABC will be using that fancy Dartfish StroMotion thing that follows the path of a player or the ball on an instant replay. Wonder if they can use it to break down a replay of Greg Lalas trying to two-foot Hard C while he was standing on the sideline at the media tournament Saturday afternoon?

***

I don't care who is playing in the final Sunday, it was the greatest team in Major League Soccer who stood out as the class of the league on Saturday night.

You see, after the Saturday night Gala, the party moved back to the hotel lobby bar for some additional Pepsis and Aquafinas. And when the lights came on for closing time, what team was represented by the last ones standing? That's right cowboy, among them were none other than some familiar faces from one FC Dallas.

That is how a team should be defined ... and why Frisco is gonna take MLS Cup weekend to a whole new level next year.

Lalas: Gala-vision

Sunday, 2:08 a.m. PT

I'd like to thank MLS for getting David Lynch to plan the MLS Gala Awards Party. Stilt dancers?

MLS considers itself a groundbreaker in the pro sports world. To wit, the single entity structure and a team in Columbus, Ohio. (MLS beat the NHL by four years.)

But now I can boldly state that MLS has raised the bar. How? By introducing the 12-minute year-end awards ceremony. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I can't tell you how happy I was when the house lights came up. After playing in the MLS Media game, there was no way I would've made it through one of those usual endless wrist-slashers that drives most sane people to the bar before they tear off their own ears in a misguided homage to Van Gogh.

(Speaking of the Media Cup, my team, which included Alexi and Marcelo Balboa, managed only 4th place out of 6 teams. Oh, the shame. Luckily, this is MLS, so we still made the playoffs).

My eyes were just adjusting to Jimmy Conrad's white tuxedo when the entire ceremony -- the reason we were here in the first place -- was over and the girls on stilts started dancing.

Go ahead, read that last bit again. "... the girls on stilts started dancing." Hello, Mr. Lynch. I didn't know you were a soccer fan. People, I kid you not, there were four girls on stilts at the MLS Gala. I have no idea what Marilyn Monroe impersonators on stilts have to do with soccer, but I'm sure glad they were there. They made the night the surreal event it should be, even more than Conrad's white tux and Eddie Gaven's bewildered facial expression the entire night. The stilt girls wore lots of make up and platinum blond wigs. They were decked out in flowing black pants and tight black shirts like they were really tall stage hands. I think they performed an old Hungarian folk dance, but I'm not positive about that. If they hadn't been taller than Ezra Hendrickson, I might've tried my luck. Alas, stilt dancers don't go in for blue-ruffle tux-wearing writers.

And that pretty much explains why I'm writing an internet column at 2:08 in the morning rather than watching a private dance from a woman on stilts.

Connolly: Ready?

Saturday, 7:03 p.m. PT

Peter Nowak had the ball on his left foot. He was cutting the ball with the outside his foot, trying to spin Ben Olsen around in a circle as he closely defended his coach back on Thursday afternoon before the Kansas City Wizards had even arrived on the Left Coast. Once the D.C. United manager took an extra touch or two, Olsen had enough, and went in for the kill, dispossessing Nowak of the ball and knocking him over in the process.

Anyone else think D.C. United is ready?

I thought so.

As for the Wizards, there is no doubting they are as prepared for Sunday's match. They are the ones who, I must say, have that look about them. That cold, dead-serious stare that boxers seem to practice in the mirror to perfect can be seen in their eyes. You get a feeling that they are sick of saying nice things about Jaime Moreno, Alecko Eskandarian, Freddy, and the rest of the United crew. You also get a feeling that they're going to be very physical in this match, just as they were against Carlos Ruiz and the L.A. Galaxy last weekend.

The only thing missing is controversy. There's none at all surrounding this match. And don't give me Bob Gansler's goalkeeping "decision." He's going with Bo Oshoniyi over Tony Meola, as he should considering the former national team star hasn't played in a regular season or playoff match in over a month and his ailing Achilles could very well act up on the first cross he has to move of his line to snare off of Eskandarian's head.

Maybe Dema could have looked into the camera after Sean Wheelock asked him how he saw the match turning out and said, "Prediction? Pain," a la Mr. T. Perhaps Davy Arnaud could have snidely remarked, "Wait, WHO? I've never even heard of him," when asked about playing against Bryan Namoff on Sunday. Better yet, I'm still waiting for Jimmy Conrad's "Why D.C. United is overrated" column on SI.com.

Instead, the biggest controversy of the weekend stemmed around the teaming of Alexi Lalas, Marcelo Balboa and Greg Lalas together for Saturday's Media Cup/Hangover Game. It was like putting Real Madrid into the A-League. After Alexi enjoyed himself immensely while I chased him some 30 yards in pursuit of the ball, I fired off an e-mail to my editor at ESPN.com with "Can I write about the Quakes when I get back?" in the subject line.

Next year, I'm making the teams. And, like Olsen, I'm knocking down my coach if he gets to cutesy.

Lalas: Eat or be eaten

Friday, 6:54 p.m. PT

The day started bright and hopeful with an Eddie Gaven sighting. He was strolling along Hollywood Boulevard, checking out all the sidewalk stars outside Mann's Chinese Theater. He was with his mother. Cute. "Major League Soccer! Kid Tested, Mom Approved!"

From there, it was all downhill.

If you've never been to a Media Luncheon, I recommend you do it sometime. Basically, "luncheon" means "free lunch" and a Media Luncheon means a free lunch with the some bigshots saying bigshotty things. It's kind of like visiting a wax museum: Not as boring as a Dick Cheney speech but worse than a TV special starring Victoria Principal.

And no one ever asks any questions. I swear, it's like high school. No one wants to be considered "uncool," I guess. Today, at the big MLS Cup press conference -- and I kid you not -- there was exactly one question asked by the entire soccer press corps ("Ryan Nelsen, do you think it was better that you missed last week's game because now you're rested?" Nelsen responded, "No.") Come on, how about a real question? "Commish, how will the two new teams affect the level of play in MLS?" or "Coach Gansler, if Tony Meola is healthy, who do you go with in the final?" or even "Joe Cannon, Tino Palace wants to know why you haven't called?"

I shouldn't be so hard on my fellow media members. After all they were hungry and there was a buffet nearby. "Confucius say: Man with empty stomach have empty brain." And those boys can pack it away, let me tell you. By the time I made it to the luncheon part of the Media Luncheon, all the food was gone. Literally. Vanished. Devoured. I'm talking about a 25-foot table of platters of sandwiches and grilled vegetables cleared like bones picked clean by ravenous vultures.

Except the salad. Vultures don't go in for roughage. And the cookies lasted, because they came out later. Bringing chocolate chip cookies to a Media Luncheon is like feeding the lions. I actually got into a fight over the last chocolate chip cookie. True story. I was reaching for the last cookie and some weasel-y guy snatched it out from right under my hand. He even smirked about it. I was about to get all medieval on his you know what but decided to wait until tomorrow's media soccer match when I can do it within the laws of the game. I hope the vultures all brought their shin guards, 'cause tomorrow is payback for sticking me with the salad.

Palace: Early days

Friday, 6:05 p.m. PT

Friday is upon us, so MLS Cup weekend is officially here ... and already I have decided I am cheering for D.C. United (even though I picked the Wizards to win).

Why? Very simple ... the Wizards decided to train at 9:30 in the morning today. At 9:30 in the morning? Are you kidding me? This is L.A., babes, Starbucks doesn't even open until 10!

Plus, Queen of the Palace used her big-town juice to get us onto the guest list of a Playboy party Thursday night, so needless to say, I did not make it to Bob Gansler's Friday early-morning session on how to play with 11 guys behind the ball.

9:30 ... silly Midwesterners.

***

Your "only in L.A." moment of the day takes place as I was sitting outside at a coffee place in Beverly Hills being seen (you don't actually need to drink coffee at a Planet LA coffee joint, you just sit there and be seen).

Anyway, my friend is sitting across from me in a chair with her back to the sidewalk, when out of nowhere she gets absolutely mowed down by some old guy driving one of those little scooters. I can't make this stuff up -- he absolutely slams into her.

The old guy just smiles and mutters something that sounded like Russian for "unlucky," and then motors off after his next innocent victim. Dema, I didn't know you had relatives in L.A. ...

***

Hey Hard C and Lalas - you see all the generous bennies the players union got after cutting that big new deal with the league? Meet me tonight at the bar, we're starting a columnists union and we're starting one now.

Lalas, The Commish already called me and wants to talk about a deal. He wants you to represent us in a meeting with him at 1 a.m. in his hotel room. He said to just bang on the door really loudly if he doesn't answer the first time ...

Connolly: Surprises abound

Friday, 5:38 p.m. PT

I'm not sure which was more surprising, the fact that Greg Andrulis won Coach of the Year over the more deserving Bob Gansler, the un-be-lievable news that Jaime Moreno didn't win Comeback Player of the Year over Brian Ching, or the startling news that Greg Lalas actually got a good night's sleep last night.

The Moreno snub was appalling, no doubt, as Ching didn't have nearly as much to comeback from compared to D.C. United's magical striker. That has to be the most shocking, yet the Lalas good boy routine better not last too long or an intervention will take place.

So far, my trip can be summed up pretty easily. If I haven't been writing, then I've probably been in a Cilantro, as I've already had two meals at the excellent burrito chain that Connecticut just isn't cool enough to have.

I've also received plenty of hate mail from D.C. United fans for writing a column about how their side can win their fourth MLS Cup. At the same time, K.C. fans think I "dissed" them by writing about how United will most likely have more fans at the HDC. At least I have a clean slate with the CD Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake peeps. Right?

Another looming story on the docket is what will transpire at Saturday's Media Cup. If we kept the MLSnet.com writers together along with editor extraordinaire Rick Lawes -- a former Maine Black Bear -- it'd be cake. Tino has wheels and is an honest striker; Lalas has to be the No. 1 pick off the litter; and Waldo has been known to score a few goals in his day. It'd allow me to play in my usual center of the field role where I move a total of five steps up, back, left and right. Kind of like a bad referee.

Instead, the teams are unknown. At least to me. Maybe Ridge Mahoney will get wind of it.

Connolly: Center of attention

Thursday, 7:28 p.m. PT

This is no time to mince words. I'm tired, as I just wrote two pieces for ESPN.com, screamed at my computer screen when reading Tino's Wynaldaesque view on Joe Cannon (Am I the only person in the media who voted for Jaime?) that was in my Inbox, and am currently fighting my housemate -- the incomparable Bruce Feldman of ESPN the Mag and "Cane Mutiny" fame -- for online access.

Here's today's message: The MLS Cup should stay HERE every year.

Ever been to the HDC? If so, stop reading because you already know better. If you haven't, then please get out here this weekend. I, ahem, hear that there are a few tix left for Sunday's match.

The weather is a perfect 60-something. Not too warm, not too cold. And speaking of weather, you wake up to Jillian Barberie when you are in the 310. There are worse things in life, guys. There are also worse sights than seeing a billboard with Maria Sharapova staring back at you to say she's in town to play tennis that greets most everyone on the freeway once leaving LAX.

Sharapova won't always be out here at the same time as MLS Cup, but the same flawless training fields and gleaming grounds around the stadium should be. That'll surely be the case in Dallas and in Colorado in a few years, but there'll probably be a bigger football game to go to in the Longhorn State this time of the year and it'll be, what, 20 degrees in Denver?

The 2002 Cup Final was a ball, as Gillette Stadium was filled to the max and Providence proved to be a fun town for visiting fans, media and the teams. But it's not The Home Depot Center. The field isn't as nice, and it's not as intimate. It also doesn't have the margarita machines that I saw at the HDC.

I'm not being cutesy about this, either. I feel the same way about the Super Bowl. It should be in New Orleans every single year. That's where the players want to play, the fans want to travel and the media wants to run amok. Plus, the Saints will never get that far, so home-field advantage isn't an issue.

As for the Galaxy, we'll save that topic for another day ...

Lalas: L.A.? Uh-oh ...

Thursday, 6:18 p.m. PT

Ah, Los Angeles. My mind is running wild already and I haven't even escaped from Burbank.

Los Angeles. La La Land of milk and honey where platinum blonde is a career move, your car is a reflection of your soul (I've got a rented Chevy Cavalier), and every sad sack is just a sleazy producer away from being the next "it."

Los Angeles. The City of Angels where the sun always shines (except for today), the girls always "enhance," and the traffic always blows.

Los Angeles. Birthplace of the lowrider, the audition couch, fish tacos, star maps, Snake Plissken, tar pits, the morning smog alert, big bears with claws and fangs, the half double decaffeinated half-caf with a twist of lemon, and, of course, the Sunset Strip! Motley Crue, Ratt, Poison, Hanoi Rocks, etc., etc. Baby, I'm in glam metal Mecca and my leather pants are standing at attention! There will be some rockin' and rollin' this weekend, I guarantee. I've already checked the listings: Vince Neil, Saturday night, the Key Club. Imagine the possibilities. After the MLS Gala Awards banquet -- where I fully expect Tino Palace to hump Joe Cannon's leg once or twice -- I'm going headbanging. My formal wear: old-school tux, shiny shoes, baby-blue ruffled shirt. Man, as Diamond Dave said, I'll get some leg tonight, for sure.

And in the morning, once I find my car, my bow tie, and my dignity, I'll head off to MLS Cup, which, now that I think about it, is why I'm out here. But that's not 'til Sunday. I've got three days to destroy my body, crush my ego, and ruin my reputation. So let's get this show on the road!

Palace: Mistaken Identity

Thursday, 2:01 p.m. PT

Once in a while the voters for an award get it right, and that was the case on Thursday, as a unanimous vote handed a prestigious award to the right player. Yes, I am very thankful to the American League Cy Young voters for correctly giving Johan Santana the award ... because the MLS MVP voters absolutely blew it.

Sitting half a country away back in Columbus, Ohio, Joe Cannon got robbed, period. Let's be honest, the Colorado Rapids were miserable this season -- and ownership agreed, thus the sacking of the coach. Without Cannon standing on his head game after game, Tim Hankinson might have been gone by Memorial Day and Mile High Club would have been battling to not be the worst team in the history of MLS, never mind the playoffs.

Now I take nothing away from a fine season by the enterprising Amado Guevara, nor from a Comeback Player of the Decade-type performance from the rejuvenated Jaime Moreno ... but this vote should have been a no contest.

CUP FILLERS

I do want to take a minute to thank ESPNews for airing the announcement, saving me a trek across town to Anaheim (although I can't believe I actually passed up a free lunch). Guevara's smile-inducing, labored acceptance speech in English was the highlight of the telecast, although you even have to give credit to Waldo for sneaking in a plug for this website.

Turns out when I was pumping up Jack Jewsbury in Wednesday's column, I said he is a rookie, when he's actually in his second year. See, I told you no one knows who the heck these Kansas City guys are.

On the contrary, D.C. United really must be swamped with media requests this week, because when the popular nationally-syndicated "Ellen" show called for a guest, United was only willing to send her one of their reserves. Check out some bench-warmer named Freddy Adu on "Ellen" Friday.


To report a comment, mouseover or touch the comment and then click/touch the flag icon (Flag).