In 1997, when World Cup Qualifying started to get serious for France '98, D.C. United had a host of players in the mix. John Harkes, Jeff Agoos, Eddie Pope, Marco Etcheverry, Jaime Moreno, Raul Diaz Arce and others all missed MLS matches to try to help their respective national teams make it to the world's ultimate sporting event. There were many American D.C. United fans that were pulling for El Salvador - except when they played against the U.S. - and Bolivia just for the sake of seeing their favorite players in the World Cup. Unfortunately, with the exception of the Americans, no D.C. United player qualified for either France '98 or Korea/Japan '02. Now, as the 2006 World Cup cycle has just begun, another one of D.C. United's foreign sons has already come up short on his quest for World Cup glory.
D.C. United captain and New Zealand soccer icon Ryan Nelsen, who also captains his national team, was eliminated from World Cup qualifying this weekend. In the Oceania region, one group of six teams played a round-robin, with the top two teams advancing to the next stage. Unfortunately for Nelsen and New Zealand, they finished in third place, one point away from moving forward. Australia and Solomon Islands will play a home and home series next November, with the winner facing the 5th place finisher from South America for a place in Germany '06.
Entering this round of qualifying, the clear favorites to advance were Australia and New Zealand, but the 'beautiful game' is never predictable. New Zealand suffered an astonishing 4-2 defeat to Vanuatu on Wednesday. That loss, coupled with an unlikely draw between Solomon Islands and Australia on Sunday, sealed the fate for New Zealand. In some respects, D.C. United benefits now that Nelsen won't be missing any more matches due to national team commitments. United's defense clearly lacks in organization without Nelsen, but the knowledgeable D.C. United fans can see the bigger picture.
Nelsen has been a fixture for D.C. United since he entered MLS three years ago. He has been the consummate professional and has developed into one of the league's best defenders, being named to the MLS 'Radio Shack Best IX' last season. Nellie always has a smile on his face and has shown great leadership for United. The clearest testament to his value to United is the fact that he captains a team that includes Ben Olsen, Jaime Moreno and Earnie Stewart. Every player dreams of playing in the World Cup, and United fans should feel sad that Nelsen's dream ended so prematurely.
Nelsen will return to D.C. United just as Bobby Convey and Earnie Stewart are reporting to the U.S. National team. That means that New Zealand's World Cup qualifying ended before the United States' even began. Nelsen is a professional and will be able to fully concentrate on his job with United, but surely there will be some disappointment from his national team's missed opportunity.
Soccer fans understand the enormity of the World Cup. All of the anticipation, excitement, anxiety, joy and sorrow changes the world for those few weeks in the summer. Those emotions must be a hundred times more powerful for the players. That's what makes Nelsen and the Kiwis' loss all the more tragic. Nelsen is a great person and a great player, and he has done a lot for D.C. United. When D.C. rights the ship in the next few weeks, Nelsen is going to be a major reason why.
United fans know all that Nelsen means to the club. He's arguably the best central defender in the League, and he's clearly the glue that holds United's back line together. As such an important member to the franchise, United fans should share in Nelsen's disappointment. In four years, when Nelsen is in his 8th season with D.C. United, fans will show extra support for their team captain and his small island nation preparing to book their tickets for South Africa 2010.
Tony Limarzi provides live match commentary for all D.C. United games in English on WMET. He also contributes a column to dcunited.com, which runs every Monday.