Since the dawn of Major League Soccer, two franchises have set themselves apart from the rest of the league. These two organizations have won domestic league championships and domestic cup championships, as well as representing American club soccer on the international level. There are only two teams that have continually set the standard of excellence for the rest of the league - D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
This past weekend the two adversaries once again went head to head to try and determine who deserved top billing. The question remained unanswered after a 1-1 draw at RFK Stadium, and although the match marked the end of the season series, there may be one more meeting left between the two squads in 2004.
There is a storied past between Los Angeles and D.C., going back to the league's inaugural season. It began in the first MLS Cup final in 1996 when D.C. United came from two goals down in the final 20 minutes to win the league's first championship. Since that rain-soaked day, the two teams have been bitter rivals, but the results have not all favored United. In the opening game of the 2000 season, Los Angeles marched into RFK Stadium and handed United their most humiliating loss ever, a 4-0 blowout which, in some ways, marked a changing of the guard in MLS.
But now, as it was in the early days of the league, L.A. and D.C. seem to be coming into form as the MLS season is nearing the home stretch. The talent level for United and the Galaxy is obvious, as 12 players from these two teams were named to the MLS All-Star rosters, and Sigi Schmid and Peter Nowak are the two All-Star coaches. After a hard-fought and well-played match this past weekend, there are many signs that indicate Saturday's match may be a prelude to the 2004 MLS Cup final.
If you can manage to look past the poor officiating and the embarrassing dives in the match, you would be able to see a mid-season classic. D.C. United's defense was anchored - as always - by team captain Ryan Nelsen. Bryan Namoff and Brandon Prideaux did most of the man marking as the defense did a remarkable job containing two of the leagues most talented strikers in Carlos Ruiz and Alejandro Moreno. Besides organizing the defense, Nelsen scored his second goal of the year on an acrobatic finish as he sent a flying volley past Kevin Hartman and into the back of the net.
For the Galaxy attack, Ruiz and Moreno were tightly covered for 90 minutes, but still left a mark on the game. Ruiz converted a penalty to equalize, and he and Moreno made every counterattack dangerous. Late in the game, Ruiz was taking on a pair of United defenders and blasted a wicked curving shot that whistled over the crossbar.
As usual when at home, D.C. United played aggressively, throwing many players forward throughout the game. Josh Gros was playing great for United two months ago, yet somehow he seems to get better each game. He was more active than ever taking on defenders on the flanks and sending dangerous crosses into the penalty area. Alecko Eskandarian, who had been scoring at will for United at RFK Stadium, got behind the Galaxy defenders several times, but couldn't find the target. Freddy Adu came off the bench and was very effective. Adu was dangerous as he attacked players off the dribble, fired long distance shots and set up his teammates in front of goal.
United's attack created a number of quality chances, but the Galaxy defense withstood the siege. The central defenders for L.A. frustrated United by deflecting a number of shots, and when the shots did get to goal, Hartman was solid. D.C. United feels as though they deserved to win the game, but the L.A. defense did not break under the pressure, and perhaps the 1-1 draw was a fair result.
It is a little unfortunate for the league and the fans that L.A. and D.C. don't play again this year. It would probably have been another exciting affair to have these two teams meet only a few weeks away from the MLS playoffs. The league standings remain very compact, especially in the Eastern Conference, and a lot can change over the next two months. MLS Cup is still nearly four months away, the San Jose Earthquakes are still the defending champions and the Chicago Fire is still the team to beat in the East. But if D.C. United and the L.A. Galaxy continue to consistently battle the way they did Saturday night at RFK, there may be one final meeting between these two sides in November.