national team call-ups, salary cap-enforced roster moves, coach Bruce Arena's promotion to the national team -- they had always found a way to come out on top.
There was nothing to suggest that this would change in the new century. Although they had lost key players in right back Diego Soñora and leading scorer Roy Lassiter, United had ample cover in the versatile Carey Talley and Chris Albright, who had shown promise in the few games he played in 1999. In the draft, United strengthened its midfield with a 16-year-old phenom named Bobby Convey.
Two weeks into the 2000 season, though, everything came crashing down. In the opener, the Los Angeles Galaxy, seeking revenge for the defeat in the Cup final, embarrassed United 4-0 at RFK Stadium. In the second game, the MetroStars, coming off the then-worst season in MLS history, beat United 3-2 at Giants Stadium and United started a season 0-2 for the first time since 1996. D.C. had a big target on its back, and it was hunting season when the Chicago Fire came into town on a cold and rainy April 8 (why does it seem like all these great games took place in the rain?).
Chances were few in the opening 20 minutes as the driving, blinding rain affected both teams' performances, but United would strike first. In the 22nd minute, Ben Olsen crossed in to the penalty area. Chris Armas headed the ball out of the box, but straight to John Maessner, who settled and fired into the top left corner of the net. After 202 minutes of soccer, the defending MLS champions had their first lead of the 2000 season.
From then, United would settle into their trademark possession game, but Chicago's defense didn't allow many shots. The Fire had several chances, many coming as a result of Bulgarian legend Hristo Stoitchkov sending in dangerous crosses from the left.
In the 44th minute, United almost scored again. A Marco Etcheverry pass found Albright sprinting behind the defense, but C.J. Brown made a last-second sliding tackle before Albright could shoot. On the ensuing corner, Chicago gained possession and, while on attack, won a free kick 35-yards out.
Lubos Kubik touched the ball to Stoitchkov, who rifled a stunning left-footed shot past Tom Presthus to tie the game on the stroke of halftime. It was one of those rare occasions where, even though the opposing team had scored, you had to be awestruck at the quality of Stoitchkov's shot.
United came out determined in the second half, with Albright having several more chances in the first 10 minutes, only to meet with bad finishing. In the 69th minute, Moreno picked up the ball 35-yards out from his own goal and took off down the left. In front of the United bench, defender Andrew Lewis laid an NHL-quality body check on Moreno and was sent off.
Despite the man advantage, United couldn't find the game-winner. With five minutes to go before overtime, Jesse Marsch and Ante Razov executed a give-and-go to send Marsch in alone on Presthus. Marsch slotted the ball home to give Chicago a 2-1 lead.
In the stands, we couldn't believe what had happened. Once again the gods of fate had conspired to deny United of a win they had fully deserved.
But nobody had told Ben Olsen that was the plan. In stoppage time, Albright won a corner on the left. With time at a premium, Olsen grabbed the ball and ran to take the kick rather than wait for Etcheverry, who usually took corners, to come across the field. Olsen sent in a beauty to the far post, finding Jaime Moreno. He crashed the ball in the post, but the rebound hit him in the chest and he put the ball into an open net. United had been given a reprieve!
A minute later, an Etcheverry cross was poorly cleared by Kubik. The rebound fell to Olsen, who chest-trapped it, took a step forward and left-footed it past the 'keeper. In the span of two minutes, United had scored two goals to take a 3-2 lead! Ninety seconds later, the referee blew the final whistle, and United had won their first game of the season.
Although we thought this win meant United's problems were behind them, they would only win one of their next nine games. Injuries and national team and Olympic call-ups would prevent United from having their best lineup on the field for much of the season. We knew at some point United's reign at the top would have to end, we just didn't expect it to come so suddenly and so hard.
But on this night, for the final time until last year, the team could walk with the swagger of champions.
D.C. United 3, Chicago Fire 2
Man of the Match: Ben Olsen
Goals: Maessner (unassisted) 21, Stoitchkov (Kubik) 46, Marsch (Razov) 85, Moreno (Olsen) 92, Olsen (Etcheverry) 93
D.C. United - Presthus, Pope, Cooks (Burke 90), Agoos, Williams, Aunger, Maessner (Wood 77), Olsen, Etcheverry, Albright, Moreno
Chicago Fire - Snitko, Brown, Kubik, Lewis, George (Whitfield 59), Armas, Marsch, Nowak, Stoitchkov, Razov, Kovalenko (Soehn 75)
Yellow Cards: Marsch 17, Stoitchkov 58, Cooks 52, Aunger 57, Whitfield 65
Red Card: Lewis 69
Referee: Andrew Barnes
David Lifton is a contributor to dcunited.com. He is a member of the Screaming Eagles and longtime supporter of D.C. United.