While there are many games that I can recall in great detail, there are a handful of matches over the years where only a few events stand out in my mind. I'm going to recap four of those in the first installment of the lightning round.
April 29, 1998 - D.C. United 3, San Jose Clash 1
Before the 1998 season began, Marco Etcheverry replaced John Harkes as D.C. United's captain because Harkes was expected to miss much of the season at the World Cup with the United States national team. But before the final stages of preparation for the tournament, then-coach Steve Sampson stripped Harkes of his captaincy and cut him from the roster. Despite that disappointment, Harkes had the best game of his MLS career in the spring of '98, scoring two goals from outside the box and assisting on another.
Harkes saved his best for the second goal. In the 59th minute, he received a pass chest-high about 25 yards out from goal. He trapped it, turned, and volleyed a left-footed screamer past Clash goalkeeper David Kramer. Harkes celebrated by running over to the Screaming Eagles and giving us the "We're not worthy" salute, which we happily returned. We spent the next five minutes letting everybody in the crowd, and those watching at home on television, know precisely how we felt about Steve Sampson.
As for the third goal, it was the first United goal scored by Roy Lassiter, who had been acquired in a trade from Tampa Bay five days earlier. Lassiter would go on to score goals in his first six games for United and finish his career as MLS' all-time leading scorer, though Jason Kreis has since overtaken him.
July 22, 2000 - D.C. United 3, Newcastle United 1
In 2000, United got off to a shockingly bad start, but, as the season went into the final two months, there was still hope. A hard-fought victory in Los Angeles on July 15 left them with a record of 5-13-6 with eight games left to play. With the All-Star break coming up, United could use the time off to regroup and try to sneak into the playoffs, after which anything was possible. A friendly against Newcastle United of the English Premier League would be a good way for D.C. to work out some kinks in their game.
I have to admit to being ambivalent toward international friendlies. On one hand, we never see an opponent playing at their best. Usually they're just starting their preseason, aren't fully match fit, and are looking to give some of the newer players some much-needed playing time. On the other hand, sometimes it's fun to just watch a game without the pressure of having to care whether or not D.C. wins.
The game got underway and none of us could believe what we saw. The D.C. United of old returned, passing and moving through the Newcastle defense with ease. Etcheverry and a 17-year-old rookie named Bobby Convey played as if they had grown up together. In the 29th minute, Etcheverry sprung Convey free down the left. Convey found Jaime Moreno at the top of the box. Moreno, who spent time at Newcastle's rival Middlesborough before coming to D.C., eluded one defender and fired a shot past Republic of Ireland goalkeeper Shay Given. Four minutes later, defender Carlos Llamosa, making one of his rare forays across the halfway line, scored when Chris Albright's header off an Etcheverry corner kick landed at his feet. Five minutes into the second half, Etcheverry played in Convey again before Pete Marino headed the teenager's cross into the net. Convey was abusing the Newcastle defense so much with his speed and skill that, in the stands, we were joking that somehow he was going to wind up on Newcastle's plane back to England.
Although Newcastle would score in the 66th minute, they never came close to getting back into the game, even after their great striker Alan Shearer entered shortly after their goal. The win turned out to be just what United needed to get back into the playoff race. An overtime victory against the MetroStars in the first game after the break brought our hopes up even higher, but an overtime loss in the U.S. Open Cup a week later to Miami would begin a three-game losing streak, effectively ending United's season. But, for a couple of hours in an otherwise disappointing season, we saw a United team looking like the team we had seen lift the MLS Cup seven months before.
April 7, 2001 - D. C. United 3, Kansas City Wizards 2
Years before it became a television show, coach Thomas Rongen gave D.C. United an extreme makeover on the eve of the 2001 SuperDraft. Over a three-day span, seven players were traded, including stalwarts Carlos Llamosa, Richie Williams, and Jeff Agoos. In came Abdul Thompson Conteh, Mike Ammann and a whole lot of draft picks. With four of the first 15 picks overall, United selected Mark Lisi, Ryan Nelsen, Bryan Namoff and 16-year old Baltimore native Santino Quaranta. The intent was to rebuild the team around youth, a specialty of Rongen, thus alleviating the team of the salary cap problems of the past three years.
The season opener against the Wizards, who had won MLS Cup six months earlier at RFK Stadium, gave us hope that the previous year was an aberration. It started off badly enough, a defensive slip-up in the 18th minute led to an easy tap-in for former United star Roy Lassiter. But 15 minutes later, 17-year-old Bobby Convey would become the youngest player to score in MLS when he one-timed a header by Raul Diaz Arce underneath Wizards goalkeeper Tony Meola. Matt McKeon would head home a corner kick just before halftime to give Kansas City a 2-1 lead, but we were playing well. In the 65th minute, Wizards defender Nick Garcia was sent off for a deliberate handball in the penalty area, and Diaz Arce buried the spot kick to tie the game.
It was both a good and bad day for Convey, who dislocated a pinky and was replaced by Lisi in the 80th minute. Lisi wasn't supposed to join United until May due to finishing his college degree, but injuries forced him to be called up. Eight minutes into his United debut, he converted a Chris Albright cross for the game-winner, sending the 22,216 fans in attendance into utter chaos.
The game was a symbolic passing of the torch from the old guard to the new, for not only did Convey and Lisi score their first goals for D.C., but Raul Diaz Arce, the Salvadoran star who scored 38 goals for United between 1996 and 1997, and returned to the team early in the 2000 season, scored his last in a United uniform. Two months later he was traded to Colorado.
September 13, 2003 - D.C. United 2, San Jose Earthquakes 1
The playoff race was beginning, and only five points separated the MetroStars in second place from the Revolution in fifth. United was in third place and fighting for every point it could get when San Jose, the best team in the league and the eventual champions, came into RFK having won six out of their last eight games.
Nine minutes in, Etcheverry gathered the ball at midfield and struck a bomb into the left corner. Ronald Cerritos outran the defense and got to the ball before it went out of bounds. He chipped the ball to an onrushing Earnie Stewart, who headed it past a helpless Jon Conway to give United a 1-0 lead. We'd seen Marco make plays like that so many times that the other players involved could just as easily have been Harkes, Diaz Arce, Moreno, Lassiter, Convey, Thompson Conteh, Steve Rammel, Tony Sanneh, Roy Wegerle, Ben Olsen or A.J. Wood. But El Diablo was the constant, seeing the play before anybody else did. And when it was executed to perfection, as it was on this night, we found it nearly impossible to cheer because our collective breath had been taken away. With over a month left in the season, none of us could have guessed at the time that would be Marco Etcheverry's last assist for D.C. United. He would score two goals, both on penalty kicks, down the stretch, but assists were his trademark, and he saved one of his best for last.
San Jose's excellent offense, led by Landon Donovan, was met by a tough, resolute United defense, which held Donovan to just one weak shot in the game. But in the 80th minute, a free kick fell to current United forward Jamil Walker, who was offside. The flag stayed down, though, and Walker scored to tie the game. When the game restarted, we were so busy yelling at the referee's assistant for failing to make the call that we barely noticed Ben Olsen streaking down the left wing, unmarked, with the ball. I turned around just in time to see him cut inward and take a low, hard shot from 25 yards out that beat Conway to give United a lead they would not relinquish.
David Lifton is a contributor to dcunited.com. He is a member of the Screaming Eagles and longtime supporter of D.C. United.