Season 10: The real impact players
he finished with three goals and three assists in nine regular-season matches. But complemented the goal-poaching Raul Diaz Arce (23 goals) and wound up being the final piece of the puzzle in United's quest to the very first MLS Cup championship.
Like many foreign players, Moreno ventured into uncharted territory at the time. MLS was in its first season and with a first-year league came many questions.
"About then, it was a little bit different," Moreno said recently. "When I came here, I was lucky. It was very easy to get together with a bunch of guys. It was a really good group. I was fortunate to come. We started winning and getting points. It was great to be here and win the first championship."
Before taking the plunge, Moreno, then 22, did his homework, asking fellow Bolivian international Marco Etcheverry, who had been with the club since the beginning of the season about United and the fledgling league.
"I talked to Marco a little bit," he said. "He was telling how and about everyone. It was pretty easy to (fit in).
"You also have to be lucky to come to have a bunch of guys and good players."
That went for the coach as well. Moreno credited then United coach Bruce Arena, who directs the fortunes of the U.S. national team today, as giving him and the team freedom to be themselves on the field.
"Bruce was great to everyone, especially to me," said Moreno, who added that Arena wanted things done "very simple. ... It was like doing our thing. It was great to be around him. Everybody appreciated it."
He helped the team clinch a playoff spot, finishing second to the Tampa Bay Mutiny in the Eastern Conference with a 16-16 record and 46 points.
Moreno said his goal was "to be part of the team, to do whatever I had to do. I came here with a new league. It was kind of hard to say what was going to happen. It was a great decision by me."
Indeed it was.
Moreno remained in MLS and is one of a few players who have played in every season. He has helped United to four titles -- 1997, 1999 and 2004 -- playing all but one season (2003 with the MetroStars) with the club.
The 31-year-old Moreno is still a key performer for United. In fact, he's the team's top scorer (13 goals, eight via penalty kicks) and has six assists for a side that currently sits in second place in the Eastern Conference.
If he continues his pace, the 5-foot-10, 178-pound Moreno is primed to become the second player in league history to crack 100 goals. After the games of Sept. 18, he has 91 goals and 72 assists in 213 games.
Not every late-season acquisition could lead his team to the title, but some actually saved the season. The Crew was floundering in last place with a 7-16 mark in 1996 and just about given up for dead when Friedel was brought in.
But with a new coach in Tom Fitzgerald -- he replaced the fired Timo Liekoski -- the Crew went 9-1 during the stretch run and finished at 15-17 and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.
"He was the biggest difference maker you can possibly have," said former Crew midfielder Brian Maisonneuve, now an assistant coach with the U.S. Under-17 national team. "You can't find a better goalkeeper to win for you. He was amazing in the net."
The 6-4, 202-pound Friedel finished with a miniscule 0.78 goals against average, four shutouts and an 8-1 record in 810 minutes. He would have won the MLS goalkeeping crown going away, but Friedel needed to play the minimum 1,000 minutes.
More than stats, Friedel, then 25, instilled a confidence in the team that was desperately needed.
"You had confidence going forward," Maisonneuve said. "You know he would come up big. ... His professionalism on the playing field and in the locker room was just amazing. He gave the team what it needed -- a leader."
Maisonneuve remembered one game against New England, a 1-0 Crew victory before 38,633 fans at old Foxboro Stadium on Sept. 21, 1996. Maisonneuve set up Brian McBride's goal in the 37th minute and Friedel made 11 saves to preserve the win.
"I remember a 10-minute stretch that we were getting shelled," he said. "He was making save after save after save.
"The shots were from 30, 20 and 10 yards. ... After the game, I was talking to one of my teammates on the bus. I told him that I was ashamed that I was standing and watching him (Friedel). I was in awe of what he did."
The Crew met its match in the playoffs, losing to the Mutiny in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But Friedel had made his case.
"I know we didn't win the championship that year," Maisonneuve said. "He was one of those pieces of the puzzle. He carried some of the pressure."
Friedel lasted in Columbus for one more season before Liverpool of the English Premiership beckoned. The hero of the U.S.'s 2002 World Cup effort, Friedel (82 international appearances) has played in Europe since, most recently minding the net for Blackburn Rovers.
Gomez, 30, is the most recent example of how player can boost a team. Acquired as a discovery player on Aug. 14, 2004, the Argentine made his MLS debut against the Crew a week later. The 5-8, 157-pound Gomez finished with four goals in nine games (eight starts), including two against the MetroStars in the season finale.
He scored one goal in the playoffs, but it was his presence in the lineup that made a difference.
"It was so obvious immediately -- his fitness was not near 100 percent -- but it was so obvious that he was coming to be a driving force, that extra element that we needed," said Rapids defender Mike Petke, a member of United's championship team. "As it turned out, it was so true. Continuing into this year, he was one of the best players in this league, maybe even almost underrated. I know everyone rates him high, but don't think everybody gives him enough credit.
"He's just scary on the ball for a defender, whether it's him going to goal or him creating. He has both those tools right there. He was definitely one of the biggest reasons we won last year."
Petke admitted that he could not remember one game that Gomez stood out.
"I can't really think of games right now," he said. "If I could, it would do the other games injustice. What I can say is that what stood out for everybody was practice. I mean he's just magic with the ball. I remember one of the first practices he was here and we were trying to feel him out. We were playing a small-sided game. I was on his team that game and he scored every goal for us. It was like a 10- or 15-minute game when you're scoring three, four, five goals.
"Also, as a defender playing against him, you have to worry about scoring. What he does so well is that he lures you to think that he's going to goal and once he brings you (in) -- bam! -- he flicks the ball to the guy you've run away from. From then on there in practice, you can tell he was going to be a big player for us."
Gomez just about has picked up where he left off last season. Through Sunday's games he has nine goals and eight assists in 27 appearances for United.
So, who's going to be this year's Jaime Moreno, Brad Friedel or Christian Gomez?
Only time will tell.
Michael Lewis writes about soccer for the New York Daily News and is editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He has covered MLS since its inception. He can be reached at SoccerWriter516@aol.com. Lewis will only answer e-mails and letters that have names or are signed. Views and opinions expressed in this column are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or MLSnet.com.