MLS: Small Crowds, Big Payday in Los Angeles

Matchup of MLS teams knocked out three-time league champ D.C. United on penalties

The sight couldn't have been more poignant, nor more disturbing. Jumping up and down in delirium were the players and coaches of the Los Angeles Galaxy, the notorious runners-up of MLS who had just claimed the CONCACAF crown.

Sharing their joy were several dozen fans decked out in Galaxy teal and yellow, plus perhaps a few hundred others who'd not come to the Los Angeles Coliseum to celebrate with the other finalist, Honduran club Olimpia.

As they collected their medals, the Galaxy players stared at more than 85,000 empty places in the vast Coliseum. Most of the Olimpia fans had already left.

The final drew only 8,147, which brought the total attendance for the tournament - played as four doubleheaders - to a measly 26,476, a figure often exceeded in the same stadium for exhibitions featuring Mexican teams such as Chivas, Club America or Cruz Azul.

Midfielders Simon Elliott and Pete Vagenas bonded together the Galaxy components. They shared much of the set-play duties, and Elliott's solid tackling and timely distribution were constants.

Neither Toluca nor Pachuca, the Mexican representatives, has a large following in Southern California. The Galaxy was denied permission by Club America to field Mexican international striker Luis Hernandez.

The event promoter, InterForever Sports, didn't do a great job of marketing the 1999 tournament either, yet a soccer competition held in Las Vegas isn't an easy sell. Los Angeles - home to millions of Hispanic and Anglo fans, site of Olympic and World Cup finals - isn't a soccer backwater.

Olimpia fans turned out, Galaxy fans didn't. There were only a handful supporting the American teams at the quarterfinal venue, Cal State Fullerton, as well as the Coliseum.

The Galaxy was playing a good distance from its home field, the Rose Bowl, and months before the opening of the regular season. The semi with D.C. was played at night, and the Coliseum can be an intimidating place after dark, but what's the problem with a final played on a sunny Sunday afternoon?

GALAXY SHINES. Los Angeles shook the D.C. United monkey off its backs Jan. 19 by defeating that MLS rival on penalty kicks in the semifinals, thus extracting some measure of revenge for losses to D.C. in the 1996 and 1999 MLS Cups.

Midfielders Simon Elliott and Pete Vagenas bonded together the Galaxy components. They shared much of the set-play duties, and Elliott's solid tackling and timely distribution were constants.

"The Galaxy had the reputation of being the almost-men, the bridesmaids, whatever you want to call it, so it's nice to get that monkey off our backs," said Elliott.

"This time, we proved we can compete with anyone in this region. The whole team looked at it as a great opportunity, a chance for international soccer, playing against some of the best teams in the world.

"A bit of prize money there - obviously, that never hurts."

Ah, yes, the money.

In addition to payback, that victory earned a payoff. Teams competing in the FIFA Club World Championship in Spain next summer will be guaranteed an estimated $1.5 million just for showing up.

EZRA'S REVENGE. By scoring twice in the final, Ezra Hendrickson extracted his own retribution. He is a native of St. Vincent & the Grenadines, which during the CONCACAF qualifying phase was blasted by Honduras, 6-0 and 7-0.

After scoring, he lifted his jersey to reveal a color T-shirt depicting late reggae artist Bob Marley.

"Usually, I wear my country's flag or something particular to my country, but that hasn't been working," said Hendrickson. "So I switched up today, and ..."

Interjected head coach Sigi Schmid: "Bob came through."

"Yeah, Bob came through," Hendrickson replied. "Definitely."

More than a few of the Galaxy players came through under the guidance of Schmid. They began training in November and worked straight through to the eve of the tournament, taking just a few days off during the Christmas holidays.

"I'm still wondering where our offseason went," said goalkeeper Kevin Hartman. "Hopefully, Sigi will give us an extra week off for clinching this."

Defender Alexi Lalas couldn't have timed his comeback better. The warbling defender was whistled for two penalties, then set up two goals in the final with a header to Hendrickson and a diagonal ball to Cobi Jones.

"I appreciate the opportunity from Sigi and the confidence that he put in me, to be able to come out here and play," said Lalas, who played the final in shoes sporting the logo of his former employer, the Kansas City Wizards.

"I had a blast and I know I've got to improve and do a whole lot of things a lot better, but what a terrific start."

What about the shoes?

"I haven't had a chance to change them yet," he said. "I figured that if I'm going to wear boots, I'm going to wear boots of a team that won a championship. So it worked out well."

D.C. DILEMMA. The three-time defending champion finished fourth after losing, 2-1, to Pachuca in a consolation match featuring plenty of reserves and a 35-yard goal by Carey Talley launched from near the touchline.

Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno passed up the third-place game. Moreno, bothered by a bone bruise, had played 62 minutes in the opener with Alajuela and didn't get on the field against Los Angeles.

In their semifinal encounter, both MLS teams played at a pace that belied their lack of match fitness, but without much flair.

Los Angeles contained Etcheverry during the run of play and blunted most of his services on set plays. Galaxy midfielder Mauricio Cienfuegos rarely tested the United defense.

Los Angeles repeated its success in the 1997 CONCACAF tournament, in which it defeated United, 1-0, before losing to Cruz Azul, 5-3, in the final. Hartman stopped Etcheverry and Olsen in the penalty-kick tiebreaker, and he felt atonement for his scuffed kick in MLS Cup 1999 that led to a United goal.

"We were playing a million-dollar shootout there with the penalties," said Hartman, "so it was great to be able to come up huge for all the guys, because after the MLS Cup, I felt I had stolen money from guys, so it's nice to put money back in their pockets."

And that's real money.

by Soccer America senior editor Ridge Mahoney

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