|DC United 3||LA Galaxy 2|
|Did You Know?|
|The same Nor'easter that impacted MLS Cup '96 canceled Game 1 of the 1996 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and New York Yankees the day before in New York.|
#18. Blame It on the Rain (1996)
“You’d have to be absolutely crazy to be outside in this weather today.”
That’s what the voice on the radio said in Boston on the morning of MLS Cup 1996, the first championship game in league history. A Nor’easter carrying record rainfall was tearing through New England and Foxboro Stadium, the site of the final, was not be spared.
“My recollection is the guy on the Weather Channel in his hurricane suit standing next to the ocean waves as they’re crashing against the shore,” MLS president Mark Abbott said of the TV news reports on that day. “This was a storm that was epic. Here we are, the crowning day of our first season, and we’re wondering are we going to be able to get the game off?”
Field conditions – Foxboro Stadium had a grass surface at the time – and concerns about attendance were at the forefront of the discussions taking place among league executives as MLS Cup weekend kicked off.
LA Galaxy midfielder and current UCLA manager Jorge Salcedo recalls the team meal on the day of the game and the commotion at the club’s hotel.
“I remember it was up in the air whether the match would take place, although the coaches and owners of the team didn’t say much to us so that they wouldn't worry us about whether we were going to play,” Salcedo said. “It was still a big question mark. There was talk that maybe they would push the match to a later time or maybe the next day. We left the pregame meal with uncertainty whether the match would be played.”
“We had a dilemma and clearly we had to take a look at whether the game could go forward,” Abbott said. “We were focused on moving forward with the game if at all possible, and I think the weather added to the mystique of the game rather than detracted from it.”
The league’s braintrust eventually opted to move forward with the match even though there was standing water in the corners of the pitch and the wind was whipping hard. But the players understood the momentous occasion and the reality that the show must go on.
“I always thought it would be on,” said D.C. United defender Eddie Pope. “The conversation I do remember is that it could have been a little delayed because they had to squeegee the field.”
“It rained so much that it was logical that the game would be postponed,” D.C. midfielder and current Montreal Impact manager Jesse Marsch said. “Even though under normal circumstances that game would normally be postponed, given the enormity of the situation, there was no way it was getting cancelled.”
Marsch tells the story of the D.C. equipment manager forgetting to bring enough socks for the match. Together with the other reserves, Marsch spent halftime wringing the water from their socks to give to the starters.
Galaxy midfielder Mauricio Cienfuegos talked about taking the field with regular cleats even though team personnel had warned him he'd slip and slide all over the place if he didn't wear the screw-on studs.
"In no moment did I slip," the Salvadoran Cienfuegos said. "In my country, it always used to rain and the fields were bad where we grew up."
In fact, the pomp and circumstance had been axed out of the program in an attempt to avoid further damage to the field, but in the end, the celebrations were memorable – especially the ones that saw Galaxy forward Eduardo Hurtado and Pope make gliding head-first dives on the wet Foxboro grass.
“During the course of the game, I was thinking, 'In the end, this isn’t going to be a soccer game,'” LA defender Greg Vanney said. “And with a lot of excellent players on the field, we didn’t see their best because of the conditions. But it was an exciting game, for sure, the way it came down in the end.”
More than 34,000 fans braved the weather just to witness soccer history – Pope's golden-goal header won it in overtime – surpassing by far the attendance projections of league officials under the circumstances. Among those present was the family of LA Galaxy icon and current New York Cosmos director of soccer Cobi Jones, who camped under a tarp for the entire match.
“Especially nowadays, the game would be canceled for sure,” Jones said. "But we knew the game was going to be played. It was the first year. It had to be played.”
The lasting memory for Abbott is the ad hoc trophy ceremony and the enthusiasm of the D.C. United players that not even the driving rain could dampen – umbrellas and musty camera lenses included.
“I think that the right decision was to move ahead with that game,” Abbott said. “We saw some pretty special play despite the field conditions and some very memorable moments in the history of the league. And I wouldn’t trade that.”