While we all remember the MLS Cup Finals, oftentimes the regular season games stand out every bit as strongly. Sometimes I remember them because they were close, tension-filled games against big rivals, had an incredible atmosphere inside RFK Stadium or contained a sublime moment of magic that only 'El Diablo' himself, Marco Etcheverry, could provide. It could also be because I had videotaped the game and never erased it. Sometimes it's all four of those, and this game is a perfect example of it.
Before the league went to a three-division format for the 2000 and 2001 seasons, D.C. United had quite a strong rivalry with the Columbus Crew. United knocked them out of the Eastern Conference Finals three consecutive years, which gradually brought the games to levels of nastiness usually reserved for the MetroStars. Their inability to win at RFK didn't do much to endear United to them, either. But when Columbus moved to the Central Division and United only had to play them twice a year, it took the steam out of what could've been one of the best rivalries in the league.
The strategy employed by most teams against D.C. in those days was to hack Jaime Moreno, and that's what Columbus did when United faced them on consecutive weeks in June of 1999, winning both. In the 65th minute of the second game, defender Matt Chulis was repeatedly kicking at Moreno. Jaime decided he had taken enough abuse over the two weeks and swung out his elbow, clocking Chulis in the face.
Moreno escaped with only a yellow card, which was fortunate because midfielder Jason Moore, United's No. 1 draft pick that year, had been sent off four minutes earlier, but the message was clear. A minute later, Moreno scored to give United a 2-0 lead, and they held on for a 2-1 victory, leaving the Crew and their fans apoplectic. United again beat Columbus 2-1 on July 7, so the match on August 14 could give United a sweep of the season series.
The game started with neither team controlling the play, but the first blow was struck after 10 minutes, when United right back Diego Soñora re-aggravated his strained groin muscle and was replaced by versatile midfielder John Maessner, United's supersub of our first two years. In 1998, Maessner went to the Miami Fusion in the Expansion Draft, but returned 18 months later as part of the deal to get Chris Albright.
Both teams had their first good scoring chances within two minutes of each other. In the 18th minute, Moreno made a beautiful 40-yard run, stopped short of the penalty area, and aimed for the far post, barely missing. Then, Crew forward and Columbia, Md., native Brian West got free on the left and sent in a low cross that midfielder Robert Warzycha fired wide.
That summer, the city was going through an oppressive heatwave with no relief in sight. There were two, maybe three weeks without even a hint of rain. Now, had you been at home, you would have known that there was a severe thunderstorm warning for our area, but those of us at the game had no idea it was coming. The sky grew dark shortly after kickoff, and the rain started midway through the first half, quickly becoming torrential. Everybody headed for the safety of the back rows of the lower bowl, which are covered by the Mezzanine, except the Screaming Eagles and the Barra Brava, who greeted the downpour in the only way we know how, by making even more noise than usual.
Both goalkeepers wound up on the receiving end of some physical play. In the 20th minute, Geoff Aunger, our "baby-faced assassin," upended Crew goalkeeper Matt Dougherty. Five minutes later, West slid into Tom Presthus while chasing a loose ball. Both men tried to continue, but nine minutes later, Jeff Cunningham replaced West, and Mark Simpson, currently United's goalkeeper coach, took over for Presthus in the 35th minute. Simpson had seen limited action since his serious knee injury in 1997, but he had played three days earlier in our 4-1 victory against the MetroStars, so at least he had some recent game experience.
As the deluge continued, the field conditions and visibility worsened. It became difficult for United to get into its smooth passing game. Short passes died in puddles and long balls hit the wet grass and skidded out of bounds. Some individual opportunism and luck would be required to break the deadlock. Such occasions usually called for Ben Olsen.
In the 33rd minute, Moreno fed Olsen 35 yards out on the left wing. He dribbled forward and went to his right just outside the penalty area, eluded two defenders, and shot. Maessner stuck out his left foot and re-directed the ball past Dougherty for his first goal since returning to United.
Columbus had its best chance of the half a few minutes later. A nice through-ball by Cunningham sent Brian McBride in behind the United defense. The national team star turned Simpson and would have scored had Olsen not caught up and deflected the shot just enough to put it over the crossbar. "You've never won a game here" rang out from the Nest.
As the half came to a close, midfielder Richie Williams saw Moreno alone 10 yards out from goal. But as the ball reached Moreno, Elcock clattered into him from behind, a clear penalty to everybody in the stadium except referee Brian Hall, and the first half ended with United up 1-0.
By the time the teams came out for the restart, the sun had returned, but the field had not fully drained, and the Crew took advantage of the conditions only a minute into the second half. A turnover gave the speedy Cunningham room to run. A well-executed give-and-go with Brian McBride left Cunningham behind our defense. He aimed for the far post, but the ball glanced off his foot and inside the near post, tying the game at 1-1.
With the momentum now in their favor, Columbus went in for the kill. Cunningham missed the goal again, and shortly thereafter midfielder Brian Maissonneuve hit the side netting with a rocket from 30 yards. Then United woke up and began to re-assert control, and that could only mean that it was time for El Diablo.
When Marco Etcheverry was in his prime, you went to every game knowing you were going to see something remarkable: a free kick that dipped just under the bar or a perfectly weighted pass behind the defense right into Roy Lassiter's path. He would take two clueless defenders to the goal line and leave them stone-footed. Now, in the 57th minute, a Carey Talley throw-in found Marco a step ahead of Jason Farrell in the box. Farrell swung his leg out and Marco tumbled to the ground. Hall immediately blew his whistle and pointed to the penalty spot. Moreno sent Dougherty the wrong way with the penalty kick, giving United a 2-1 lead.
The replays showed that Farrell only hit a puddle. While I do not condone diving, and I wish the referees would issue cards for it more often, I have to admire Etcheverry's ability to anticipate Farrell's challenge and time his fall so perfectly that it looked natural, even to a well-positioned referee. Still, Hall did miss that blatant penalty at the end of the first half, so one might see this as justice.
Stern John, the excellent Crew forward who didn't start due to a bruised calf muscle, then replaced Farrell. Despite the extra pressure, United were not about to retreat into a defensive shell. Minutes after Cunningham missed another gift chance, Olsen rattled the post from 30 yards out. Then Moreno shot weakly into Dougherty's arms. With 15 minutes left, Aunger sent Lassiter behind the defense on the right wing, only to have Lassiter put his shot inches off target.
Columbus responded by throwing everything at our goal. Simpson blocked two Maissonneuve shots in quick succession. Then, a Columbus counter-attack led to a missed shot by Stern John. In the 83rd minute, there was another moment of controversy as John headed a McBride cross into the net, but Hall ruled that John had pushed Jeff Agoos, nullifying the goal.
In the final minute, Columbus had several opportunities to equalize and send the game to the Shootout, the much-hated tie-breaker that MLS used in its first four years. Mike Clark sent in a cross to the far upper corner of the goal. The ball ricocheted off John's head, Simpson's hand, and the woodwork. Miraculously, the ball stayed out of the net. The rebound fell to Warzycha, whose shot hit Simpson in the chest, and Jeff Agoos cleared it away. Seconds later, a McBride shot was headed for the upper corner, but Agoos headed it out for a corner kick, and Dougherty came out from his goal to head the ball wide. As the game ended, our hearts restarted beneath our soaked clothes.
D.C. United 2, Columbus Crew 1
D.C. United: Maessner (Olsen, Moreno) 33, Moreno (pen.) 58
Columbus: Cunningham (McBride) 47
D.C. United: Presthus (Simpson 35), Sonora (Maessner 10), Pope, Talley, Agoos, Williams, Aunger, Etcheverry, Olsen, Lassiter, Moreno
Columbus Crew: Dougherty, Yeagley, Lapper, Clark, Elcock, DeBrito (Dooley 77), Maisonneuve, Warzycha, Farrell (John 58), West (Cunningham 29), McBride
Man of the Match: Ben Olsen
Referee: Brian Hall
David Lifton is a contributor to dcunited.com. He is a member of the Screaming Eagles and longtime supporter of D.C. United.