MLS Cup Top 50: #28 Marcelo Balboa (1997)

Top 50 MLS Cup Moments: #28 Biker Boss

D.C. United 2 Colorado 1
Moreno 37'
Sanneh 68'
Paz 75'
Did You Know?
Marcelo Balboa is the only defender to ever win the MLS Goal of the Year award. The heralded strike? A bicycle kick, of course.
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#28. Biker Boss (1997)

The Colorado Rapids happily embraced the role of underdog during their first shot at the postseason in 1997, but even the club’s most die-hard believers knew the odds were never longer than at MLS Cup at RFK Stadium.

That’s where the small-market, blue-collar and probably wide-eyed Rapids ran into none other than D.C. United, the reigning league champions and easily the most star-studded team of its day. D.C.'s players were already household names for fans even during the league’s infancy: Jaime Moreno, Marco Etcheverry, John Harkes, Eddie Pope, Raúl Díaz Arce.

The Rapids didn’t pack as much punch for the marquee, but they had their own resident soccer celebrity in Marcelo Balboa. At 30 years old and still just three years removed from the 1994 World Cup, Balboa was undoubtedly one of the most identifiable figures in the league, and most fans could remember the exact moment he first caught their attention.

Of all the moments during the US national team’s stunning 2-0 win over Colombia in the World Cup, Balboa’s acrobatic bicycle kick off a Tab Ramos corner kick in the 80th minute was the most tantalizing example what American players could really do. Yes, he scorched the shot just inches wide of the post, but it was a hint that certain US players had both grit and a flair for the dramatic, and Balboa was a dangerous mix of the two.

Fast-forward three years to his first MLS Cup with the Rapids, but drop Colorado in a none-too-surprising 2-0 hole. D.C. got goals from Moreno and Tony Sanneh to the delight of the RFK fans, and the Rapids started to push for whatever they could get as the final minutes started ticking away.

“We went down 2-0, and we actually started playing better, because the pressure was off,” said Balboa, who had pushed up into a defensive midfielder role instead of his traditional spot on the back line. “We were desperate. We were trying anything to get back into the game.”

Balboa had long strived to set himself apart from other reliable defenders by also earning a reputation as a dangerous threat in the offensive end. That largely meant delivering on set pieces, and sometimes attempting what some only witnessed on videos of soccer great Pelé: the bicycle kick.

“I was always the crazy kid who was doing diving headers, the one who was trying bicycle kicks at practice,” he said. “I knew I wanted to score goals and I wanted the joy of being able to celebrate. So I worked hard on the timing of crosses and corner kicks, and I worked hard on plyometrics so I could jump higher than other people.

“People always said to me, ‘You can’t just score a normal goal, can you?’ And I would say, ‘I’m trying. God knows I’m trying.’”

Balboa’s big chance against D.C. United came with roughly 20 minutes left in the match, when a cross from the right flank gently floated his way near the top of the box. It was a similar spot to the chance against Colombia, and a familiar scene: Balboa flung his left foot in the air and then wheeled his right foot to meet the ball, giving fans a dramatic flashback of the moment that captivated them three years before.

Unfortunately, this time the ball landed harmlessly in the arms of D.C. goalkeeper Scott Garlick, who flung it back into play down the right flank, unfazed by what could have been perhaps the best goal in MLS Cup history.

“It didn’t feel right,” Balboa said. “It wasn’t anywhere near the Colombia shot, probably because I knew I wasn’t going to get a lot on it. The ball out of the air against Colombia had momentum, and I didn’t feel it come off my foot when I hit it, that’s how pure I hit it. This one, though, I could feel. I knew it wasn’t the same kind of shot.”

Balboa finally did strike gold in 2000, when he snapped a bicycle kick into the back of the net against the Columbus Crew and eventually won Goal of the Year.

But the moment in 1997 passed him by, as it did for the Rapids in a 2-1 loss. Balboa never played in an MLS Cup again, and retired in 2002.

“We had a good team, and a lot of guys worked so hard that season just to get to that final,” Balboa said. “No one respected us, and I don’t think anyone expected us to win. We scared them, but we came up a goal short.”

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