MLS Cup '04 could be a classic

and 19 of those goals came over the final 11 contests of the season. United then scored seven goals in their three MLS Cup Playoffs matches to lead the eight teams.

But the Wizards had the league's best defensive record during the regular season, allowing just 30 goals from 30 games, posting an MLS-high 12 shutouts on the campaign (four over their last five regular season games). They recorded clean sheets in their final two postseason games to reach the MLS Cup Final -- which extended an incredible shutout streak at home to better than 12 1/2 hours over all competitions (regular season, U.S. Open Cup, MLS Cup Playoffs).

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Neither team spent much time atop their respective conferences during the season. After failing on numerous occasions, the Wizards did finally take over first place in the Western Conference on Aug. 21, where they remained for six of the season's final seven weeks. United spent the season bouncing around the Eastern Conference table, mostly in second and third, though they led for one glorious week in July which gave Peter Nowak head coaching honors in the MLS All-Star Game.

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Remarkably, four previous MLS Cup MVPs -- out of eight possible -- will be involved in today's proceedings, and they all have ties to D.C. United. Jaime Moreno, winner of the honor in 1997, and Ben Olsen, who won the award in 1999, are back to try and add to their personal haul of winners' medals. United coach Peter Nowak won the 1998 MLS Cup MVP award, when his Chicago Fire briefly ended United's run of MLS Cup victories. Then Wizards goalkeeper Tony Meola took the honor in 2000 in the final at RFK Stadium -- though injury will likely rule him out for Sunday's Final.

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If the Wizards had scored one more goal this season, they would be on track for an unprecedented domestic "treble." Already winners of the U.S. Open Cup, the Wizards finished tied with the Columbus Crew on 49 points for the best record in MLS this season, but lost out on the Supporters' Shield on the second tiebreaker, the Columbus Crew winning the honor having scored two more goals after the two teams finished with the same goal differential.

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Two teams have done the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup double (D.C. United in 1996, Chicago Fire in 1998), on each occasion only the league regular season title eluding their grasp.

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This is the first time in three seasons the Supporters' Shield winner is not taking part in the MLS Cup Final. In 2001, the Chicago Fire won the Shield with the best regular-season record in MLS, but lost in the semifinals. In 2002, the Shield-winning Los Angeles Galaxy also won the MLS Cup, while last year, the Fire again finished with the best record over the course of the season, but lost in the Final.

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During the regular season, the teams met twice -- last on July 10. Each team won 1-0 on their home ground: A wonderful Jaime Moreno goal giving United victory on May 15 at RFK Stadium, then a 17th-minute goal from rookie Matt Taylor the difference in July at Arrowhead Stadium.

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Sunday's referee is Michael Kennedy (Evergreen, Ill.), who will be running the middle in his first MLS Cup Final. Kennedy refereed 12 games in league play during the season, which averaged 29.0 fouls per contest (16th-most of 21 referees) and 2.6 yellow cards (19th-most). He did not send off a player in the regular season, and awarded eight penalties, tied for the most of any referee this season. Kennedy has been an MLS referee since the 1998 season, though he served as an assistant referee on a number of occasions in 1996 and 1997.

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Running the lines will be Nate Clement (senior assistant referee; bench side) and Kermit Quisenberry (junior assistant referee; opposite side). For Clement (Newark, Del.), this is his second MLS Cup Final - he was an assistant referee in MLS Cup 1999 - while for Quisenberry (Jacksonville, Fla.), this is his first MLS Cup Final. The fourth official is Abbey Okulaja (Broadview, Ill.), the MLS Referee of the Year for 2004.

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The Home Depot Center is the third stadium to play host to multiple MLS Cup Finals. The old Foxboro Stadium played host to the 1996 and 1999 Finals, while RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. was the site of the 1997 and 2000 championship games.

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The Southland is hosting its third MLS Cup, equaling the most of any locality. In addition to the two here at the HDC, the Rose Bowl in Pasadena hosted the 1998 Final. Foxborough, Mass., has also hosted three MLS Cup Finals, the two in Foxboro Stadium and one at new Gillette Stadium (2002), built on the site of the former stadium.

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Last year was a MLS Cup Final of firsts. Landon Donovan became the first player in the eight Finals to score more than one goal, when he scored the Earthquakes second and fourth goals on their way to victory, while teammate Chris Roner conceded the first own goal in eight MLS Cups. In addition, the Chicago Fire's Ante Razov took the first penalty kick in an MLS Cup Final - only to see it saved by San Jose goalkeeper Pat Onstad.

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Donovan also became the first player with three goals all-time in MLS Cups. He scored the first in the Earthquakes 2-1 extra-time win in 2001 against the Galaxy. Before Donovan's double's last year, only Tony Sanneh (1996 and '97) and Jaime Moreno (1997 and '99) had hit for more than one goal in MLS Cup Finals. The three - Donovan, Sanneh and Moreno - are the only players to hit for goals in more than one Final.

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Only once in an MLS Cup Final has a team finished with the same XI that started the match: the 1997 D.C. United side that beat Colorado Rapids 2-1 at RFK Stadium.

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When the Kansas City Wizards and Los Angeles Galaxy met in the Western Conference Final, it was the third time they had met in the MLS Cup Playoffs with the right to play for the MLS championship. Each team won once - which will now mean good omens for the Wizards, as their 2000 MLS Cup victory came after dispatching the Galaxy in a dramatic semifinal series. The Galaxy knocked off the then-Wiz in 1996 before losing to D.C. United in the incredible inaugural MLS Cup.

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Six players who played in MLS Cup 2000 for the Wizards are still with the club. Tony Meola - who will be out of the Cup Final through injury - was the game MVP after making 10 saves, while Preki and Chris Klein (who will also miss this final through injury) were in the starting lineup, as were midfielder Kerry Zavagnin and defender Nick Garcia. Francisco Gomez came on as a late substitute.

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In addition, three other Wizards have played in MLS Cup Finals for other teams. Diego Gutierrez played in two for the Chicago Fire, playing the entire match in the '98 victory against D.C. United and scoring the Fire's second goal, and also starting in MLS Cup 2000 against Kansas City. Josh Wolff also played for the Fire against the Wizards in 2000, coming on as a 59th-minute substitute. Jimmy Conrad played the entire 2001 MLS Cup Final for the San Jose Earthquakes.

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Just two players who played in United's last appearance in the MLS Cup Final are still with the team - and both have returned to the club after moving elsewhere. Both also scored on that day, a 2-0 victory against the Los Angeles Galaxy at Foxboro Stadium on Nov. 21, 1999. Jaime Moreno scored United's first, and after a difficult season last year with the MetroStars, revitalized his career with his return to D.C. Olsen, who added the second and was named MVP, has returned to form after a star-crossed stint with Nottingham Forest where he suffered an ankle injury that put him out for nearly two full seasons.

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Moreno is one of five United players who started each of the club's first four MLS Cup Finals - and he's making his first appearance since. Three of the others - Marco Etcheverry, Richie Williams and Eddie Pope - have yet to make it back to MLS Cup, while the fifth, San Jose Earthquakes defender Jeff Agoos, has played in six Finals of the eight played so far (most in League history).

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United also has three other players who have played in MLS Cup Finals for other teams. Two were on opposite sides of MLS Cup 2000 at RFK Stadium - Brandon Prideaux playing the entire match at left back for the Kansas City Wizards, while Dema Kovalenko played the whole game for the Chicago Fire. Midseason addition Ezra Hendrickson appeared in three finals for the Los Angeles Galaxy, playing every minute of the 1999, 2000 and 2002 Finals.

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In addition, United boss Peter Nowak played in two MLS Cup Finals. He was the MVP in 1998, when he played provider on the goals by Jerzy Podbrozny and Diego Gutierrez that gave the Chicago Fire their 2-0 victory against D.C. United. He was a starter in midfield in the MLS Cup 2000 loss to the Kansas City Wizards, coming off for a substitute after 83 minutes. He is the second former player in MLS history to take a team to the MLS Cup Final as a coach (Frank Yallop, San Jose Earthquakes, 2001 and 2003).

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Both teams will wear their home uniforms in this Cup Final. When the Wizards won their 2000 championship, they wore their all-blue home kit, while United has won two titles in their all-black attire (1997, 1999), splitting the two contests when they wore their road white (1996, 1998).

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When United claimed the Eastern Conference Championship against the New England Revolution, it was the first time in the nine-year history of MLS that a league match was decided by penalty kicks. Games were decided by the shootout in the first four years of the league - including nine MLS Cup Playoffs matches - but since the change of rules last year, none were decided by spot kicks.

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However, four matches involving MLS teams on both sides in the U.S. Open Cup (and one in the CONCACAF Champions Cup) have been decided by penalties -- the first the 1997 U.S. Open Cup Final, where the Dallas Burn defeated D.C. United 5-3 on penalties after a scoreless draw over 120 minutes.

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The Wizards will have two major absences due to injury for the Final. Preki and Chris Klein will be out after both underwent surgery -- on an ankle and knee respectively -- during the season. Tony Meola, who was not available through injury for the Western Conference Final against the Galaxy, was not listed on the club's injury report this week. The only United absence through injury is forward Thiago Martins, who suffered a knee injury late last year, then re-injured it while trying to return this season.

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One final trivial note, thanks to MLSnet.com columnist Greg Lalas: D.C. United is 29-17-2 in league and MLS Cup competition on Sundays, while the Kansas City Wizards are 12-20-2.

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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