D.C. United are the most successful team Major League Soccer has ever seen. The Black-and-Red played in each of the league's first four championship games, winning the contest on three occasions. However, after the side claimed their third title in 1999, things went terribly wrong for the club.
Three consecutive seasons (2000-2002) came and went without a single playoff performance as the team struggled to adequately deal with the comings and goings of both players and coaches. The 2003 campaign was a moderate success, United finally qualifying for postseason action before being bumped out of the playoffs by a pair of 2-0 thumpings from the Chicago Fire in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
But in 2004 D.C. picked up where they left off at the end of the last millennium, using a late-season surge to propel themselves to a second-place finish in the East and riding that wave all the way through to their fifth MLS Cup berth in nine seasons.
In the current squad of 24 players, only two remain from that 1999 championship team. Ben Olsen and Jaime Moreno were both there on that brisk November day at Foxboro Stadium when the Cup was brought back to D.C.
They will look to create similar memories on Sunday when they face the Kansas City Wizards in MLS Cup 2004.
Even though this season's team is made of almost entirely different personnel, Olsen still sees a number of similarities between the two squads. The hard-driving midfielder believes that the style of play now is similar to what coach Thomas Rongen's squad was producing five seasons ago and he points several parallels in the makeup of D.C.'s potent attack.
"They're similar in the fact that both teams have two hot forwards," said Olsen. "We had Roy (Lassiter) and Jaime (Moreno) going back and forth with goals (in 1999) and Marco (Etcheverry) was chipping in with his goals. Now we have the same type of deal with Jaime and Alecko (Eskandarian) and Christian (Gomez)."
This season's team showed flashes of brilliance from opening day on, but they weren't able to consistently play to their potential until the tail end of the schedule. United won five of their final six regular season matches and are riding a six-game winning streak going into the MLS Cup Final. They have also prevailed in eight of their last 10 games (including playoffs) and haven't suffered a loss since Sept. 25, a 1-0 defeat at the hands of the Columbus Crew.
The 1999 team was able to produce more regularly than their 2004 counterparts, but they also put together an impressive late-season and playoff run. Ten of their final 12 regular season matches saw United come out victorious. Olsen did not fail to make that connection.
"It's about peaking," said Olsen. "The main similarity I would say is that we were both peaking at the right time."
Olsen is also relishing the opportunity to play for another championship ring with Moreno by his side.
"Anytime you can have some camaraderie and have experiences before with player, it's special," Olsen said. "I hope for the best for Jaime and I hope he does very well and I'm sure he will."
Olsen himself did very well in his last MLS Cup appearance, scoring the second goal in United's 2-0 victory against Los Angeles. He capitalized on a mistake by Galaxy 'keeper Kevin Hartman, who mis-hit an attempted clearance straight into the winger. Olsen alertly lofted the ball over a helpless Hartman to put the game out of reach. He was named the MLS Cup MVP that day, though he took a modest approach when prodded about whether or not fans can expect the same from him at The Home Depot Center on Sunday.
"I'm just going to run around like a maniac and we'll see what we can do," he said.
"We just have to do our job and help the team, that's the main thing," added Moreno. "We know what the feeling is and -- for sure -- we don't want to lose. We just have to do our job and everything else will take care of itself."
Jonathan Nierman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.