After having reached the MLS Cup Final in the first four years of their existence, D.C. United failed to even make the playoffs in 2000. Furthermore, the salary cap problems that had forced United to trade such favorites as Raul Diaz Arce and John Harkes continued. United needed to offload some of its highest-paid players while finding enough talent in the draft to make up for the considerable loss in skill. Going into the weekend of the 2001 MLS SuperDraft, it was reported that nobody's job was safe, and we United fans feared that our favorite players would wind up with other teams.
Defender Carlos Llamosa was one of the first to leave, sent to the Miami Fusion for Brian Kamler and the fourth overall pick in the SuperDraft. With left back Jeff Agoos traded to San Jose, Kamler, who had played for United from 1996-99, would become the starting left back. But there was some question as to who would replace Llamosa in central defense. With the fourth pick in the draft, D.C. United selected Ryan Nelsen, an all-American from Stanford who had already seen time with the New Zealand national team.
When drafted, nobody suspected that Nelsen would be the dominant defender that Llamosa was. In fact, he was chosen to replace Richie Williams, another casualty of that weekend, at defensive midfield, where Nelsen had played in college. But with United leaking goals, coach Thomas Rongen moved Nelsen to the backline in the last few months of the season when Mark Watson was lost through injury, and he stayed there the rest of the campaign.
When Ray Hudson replaced Rongen for the 2002 season, the Ryan Nelsen-Eddie Pope central defense partnership was in full swing. With help from new acquisitions Milton Reyes, Brandon Prideaux and goalkeeper Nick Rimando, United improved from 1.92 goals against per game in 2001 to 1.43, the fourth-best record in the league.
Nelsen also began showing his offensive skills at this time. On June 8, he scored his first two professional goals, the second the game-winner, in United's 3-2 comeback win against New England. He finished the season with four goals and three assists for 11 points, tying him for third on the team.
But Nelsen's biggest moment that year was when he lived out every Kiwi's dream by scoring the game-winner against archrivals Australia to give New Zealand the Oceania Cup.
With Pope traded in the off-season, the message was clear that Nelsen was now in charge of the defense, and he rose to the challenge. United gave up a team-record low 36 goals in 30 games. On July 2, 2003, before an away game against Dallas, Nelsen was named the third captain in D.C. United history. He rose to the challenge by scoring his only goal of the season, crashing the far post on an Ali Curtis cross, and United won the game 3-1.
In addition to Nelsen's tough tackling and aerial supremacy, his ability to organize the backline, consisting of Prideaux, Mike Petke and Bryan Namoff (who was also drafted by United in 2001 as a midfielder and converted to defender), into one of the league's toughest defenses made Nelsen a natural captain. But Nelsen was also a deceptively good passer out of the back, capable of starting quick counter-attacks with long, pinpoint balls out to the wing, and smart enough to know when not to make that pass.
With Nelsen wearing the armband, the team won eight of their next 13 games, with season-ending injuries to Ben Olsen and Nick Rimando down the stretch preventing United from advancing further than the first round of the playoffs. For his efforts that year, Nelsen was named to the All-Star team and the MLS Pepsi Best 11.
In 2004, Peter Nowak replaced Hudson as coach and switched to a 3-5-2 formation. As the lone central defender, Nelsen dominated from the back much in the same way that Lubos Kubik, the Czech sweeper who was arguably the greatest defender in league history, did for Nowak's successful Chicago Fire teams.
While on international duty in May, Nelsen sustained a hernia. He tried to play through the pain, but it became too difficult and he was forced to sit out six weeks. After Nelsen's first game back, a 3-1 loss to Chicago on Sept. 4 in which he scored an own goal, United won nine of their last 10 matches including the playoffs, and the season ended with MLS Commissioner Don Garber handing Nelsen the Alan I. Rothenberg Trophy as United won their fourth MLS Cup.
Few players have had better relationships with the fans than Nelsen. He was ever-present at United's post-game parties and appeared at many Screaming Eagles' events, always willing to talk to us about the team. He understood our frustrations as United stumbled through those dark years, and when he and Dema Kovalenko lifted the trophy over the supporters' sections following the victory, they were symbolically acknowledging that the success belonged to us as much as them. One only needs to see the number of Nelsen jerseys worn around RFK Stadium to see the impact he had on so many of us.
The championship was Nelsen's last game with United. His contract expired at the end of the season and he decided to pursue other options. Sad as we were to see him leave, especially after having restored United to their rightful position at the top, nobody could begrudge the 27-year old Nelsen for his desire to play at a higher level, and make considerably more money, as he entered the prime years of his career.
He signed with Blackburn Rovers of the English Premier League in January 2005 and quickly became loved for the same reasons he was so popular here. After only six matches, he was given the captain's armband for a Fifth Round FA Cup match against local rivals Burnley, an unheard-of accomplishment for a New Zealander who had previously spent his entire career in America.
David Lifton is a contributor to dcunited.com. He is a member of the Screaming Eagles and longtime supporter of D.C. United.