But United reign begins to grate on rival fans
FOXBORO, Mass. - All this talk of a D.C. dynasty is great fun, if somewhat premature, and it's festering a few elements that any competition needs.
Hatred, for one. Rival fans are sick and tired of seeing United - which they regard as a golden child spoiled by the league's largesse - walk off with domestic and international trophies.
But they'd better get used to it. Players and coaches and ownership come and go, yet the victories have continued.
"This year, our players felt a real challenge," said General Manager Kevin Payne, who's been in charge since the beginning. "We lost the championship last year, Bruce [Arena] left, we lost John Harkes and Tony Sanneh.
"A lot of people wrote us off and were picking us other teams to win the East, even. Our players take pride in what they do. The players were saying, 'Let the teams talk, let the reporters write what they want, but we know where we'll be Nov. 21.'"
Where they were was on the stage at Foxboro Stadium to receive the championship trophy, and the front of the stage dropping a foot or two when a supporting rod buckled was one of the few times the United players looked flustered.
"I have three [MLS] rings," said midfielder Marco Etcheverry. "I love the rings, and I want more. I am not a bad player, you know, and I am going to work to be better."
The 1999 season is only the second campaign in which United has captured just a single trophy. Talk about aggravating.
It doubled as league and U.S. Open Cup champions in 1996 and after "only" repeating as MLS champ the following season, captured the CONCACAF and Interamerican competitions last year despite losing to Chicago in MLS Cup '98.
Former head coach Bruce Arena professed that through scheduling inequities and refereeing blunders, the league had tilted the scale toward Chicago.
Paranoia? Maybe just a little. But that's how winners are. They hate defeat.
Elimination this season in the U.S. Open Cup by the A-League Charleston Battery and to Mexican club Necaxa in the CONCACAF Champions' Cup tarnished the image somewhat and raised the hopes of United's rivals.
They were false hopes, as it turned out. United did get blasted by Columbus, 5-1, in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, but won its other postseason tussles by a combined score of 10-1.
"Everybody stuck together through the whole year," said defender Jeff Agoos, who has been a much-maligned stalwart in the back since the first day of training camp. "This has been one of the tightest-knit groups I've been associated with. You've got to have that to win championships, and we've had that all four years."
ABU spreads across the ocean
The rings and trophies brandished by United have ingrained a virulent strain of ABU within rival MLS fans, and the thousands of D.C. fans who attended MLS Cup '99 were subjected to plenty of invective from opposing supporters.
In England, ABU is a scornful comeback spouted by a fan asked who will win the Premier League. The letters stand for into Anybody But (Manchester) United, and thus is readily assimilated into the anti-D.C. fanaticism.
One chartered plane, more than a dozen buses, and hundreds of cars transported United fans up Interstate 95 to Foxboro Stadium. Payne said that in the two days after United eliminated Columbus in Game 3 by routing the Crew, 4-0, approximately 5,000 final tickets were sold.
During the match, one of the juiciest cheers to come from pockets of fans not aligned with either United or the Galaxy was, "If you hate both teams, clap your hands." They do, and they did. In the case of D.C., it was to no avail.
United players, coaches and executives are infuriating. They exude the stubborn assurance that they will win, and usually follow through.
If a sneaky elbow or insidious trip helps their cause, that's what they do. If a player like Roy Lassiter or Geoff Aunger or Carey Talley or A.J. Wood or John Maessner can fill a need, in they come. Melding grit and talent, they inexorably probe for weaknesses to be exploited through guile and gumption.
Defeat eats at them, darkens their mood. Losses are personal failures, to be taken as would be a bitter medicine.
Maessner won rings with United in 1996 and 1997, then went to Miami in the expansion draft. He came back last July via a trade, and soon fought his way into the starting lineup.
"It was difficult to go from an organization that is clearly the best in MLS to an expansion team that is obviously not sure of what it's doing," said Maessner.
"I got the word the Monday after the All-Star Game, and I think it's the highest I've ever jumped."
Far too many losing MLS locker rooms are far too noisy, as if the entire enterprise was a lark, but a defeated United team is seldom fun to be around. The bitterness often spills over to the officiating, yet most United players soon turn that frustration inward, to the chagrin of the next opponent.
A locker-room culture
"We've got a good organization here, and a culture that's developed in the locker room and in the front office, and that has quite a bit to do with it, I think," said Payne.
"Take a guy like Richie Williams. There are plenty of players in this league with much more skill than he has, and probably in the A-League, too. But the reason he's here and wins championships is because he absolutely hates to lose. When we're losing, nobody wants to be anywhere near him."
When Arena was asked why he didn't draft a player or trade for a player, his standard response was, "He hasn't won anything."
Successor Thomas Rongen is a different breed, but no less committed.
"We're not concerned right now about losing an international player, which we will," said Rongen of Argentine malcontent Diego Sonora, who lost his spot to Talley as the team marched on. "We feel we have someone who can replace him from within.
"Everything we do on the field and off the field is done to help us win."
Defender Eddie Pope believes the dominance discussions aren't yet relevant. "We're too young to be a dynasty," he said. "We've only won three. We're not the Bulls or the Celtics. When we've won five, come back and talk to me."
Maessner is a bit bolder. "The core of the players is still here and it just keeps building and getting stronger," he said. "In the near future, I don't see anything stopping us."
by Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney