I have to admit, I don’t think I would have been sitting in the rain and wind with some 34K brave souls at Foxboro Stadium on Oct. 20, 1996 – the first MLS Cup ever. Fortunately, myself, along with other members of the media were in a press box, nice and warm and dry and seemingly a million miles away from the elements. I have covered all 24 MLS Cups and quite frankly, still no one other has come close to the drama, excitement and conditions of this one (although Sporting Kansas City’s home win on a frozen field in 2013 was bad enough).
By Michael Lewis
Put this one in the time capsule. The first Major League Soccer championship game was that good.
D.C. United’s 3-2 overtime victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy on Oct. 20, 1996 had many of the ingredients that made this confrontation one classic soccer game.
That’s what your truly wrote some 24 years ago, and the game has passed the test of time, setting standards for future MLS Cups.
What could not be classic? Some 34,643 hearty souls stood for nearly three hours in the rain at Foxboro Stadium to make history in the making. That include United overcoming a two-goal deficit in the final 17 minutes of regulation and a then unheralded rookie — Eddie Pope — heading home the game-winner in extratime.
Years ago, a couple of key performers — defender Eddie Pope and midfielder Chris Armas — reminisced about that very first MLS Cup.
Both players knew that game was special and would be the standard for future MLS Cups.
“It was a great way to end the first year,” Armas told me years later. “A dramatic winning goal. Good goals. A close game. It was good for soccer.
“We should have won the game,” added Armas, who said the game “had its moments.”
Indeed, it did.
I knew that every championship game wasn’t going to end that way,” Pope said years later. “That was pretty dramatic. San Jose’s comeback win at home a few years ago (2003) might be the closest. It’s hard to duplicate.”
“How good that was for the league? It was on TV on ABC.
“What a good game for the league to have for the first championship. Can other games live up to it? We were certainly blessed.”
First, a little background.
The Galaxy broke quickly from the starting gate and reeled off a dozen consecutive wins (including two shootout victories) that season. It went through a mid-season swoon (losing five in a row). But L.A. regained its balance, finishing atop the Western Conference with a 19-13 record. The Galaxy overcame the San Jose Clash and the Kansas City Wiz (yes, that was their nickname before they changed it to the Wizards) in the playoffs.
After a stumbling 2-8 start, D.C. United picked up momentum in the latter half of the season and finished second in the Eastern Conference at 16-16 (including the playoffs, D.C. went on a 19-9 roll). Coach Bruce Arena had to focus his energies and time on two teams that season — the MLS club and the U.S. Olympic team.
After dropping the first match of the conference semifinals to the MetroStars, United won its final five playoff games, upending first-place Tampa Bay Mutiny in the conference final.
“I felt we were a good team, not a team that just peaked at that time,” said Pope, who was on that Olympic team and saw little action until he returned to the club in August.
He had another distraction: Pope was commuting between Washington, D.C. and the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C. to finish his college degree. He faced three exams after MLS Cup.
Pope looked back at that a little bemused.
“At that time I didn’t have time to think about it,” he said. “I didn’t know any better. Looking back, I can’t believe I did that. You think you were invincible (at that age).”
But on Oct. 20, 1996, Pope’s focus, along with his teammates and the Galaxy, was on old Foxboro Stadium in Foxboro, Mass.
The forecast for that day called for rain, lots of it.
The players didn’t realize how much was to come. More than 42,000 tickets had been pre-sold for the game. There were 7,725 no-shows, but the real story was the fans who showed up and stood for nearly three hours in the rain.
“For a final game, the game shouldn’t have been played,” Armas said. “There were standing puddles everywhere. The ball died down in those puddles.”
Added Pope: “We knew it was going to rain. I don’t think any of us knew what it was going to be like.
“They forgot to cover the field. Part of it was covered. We looked at it pre-game and it was completely drenched and puddles everywhere. You knew it wasn’t going to be your typical game with the field being what it was.”
United had several exceptionally skilled players, including midfield maestro Marco Etcheverry and a recent acquisition, Jaime Moreno.
“At that time D.C. prided ourselves with the way we moved the ball,” Pope said. “I remember trying to make some passes and getting caught in the puddles.”
But all things considered, the game never turned into a farce.
United showed some defensive lapses first. Ecuadorian international striker Eduardo (El Tanque) Hurtado took advantage of one by Pope by heading home a right-wing cross by midfielder Mauricio Cienfuegos past goalkeeper Mark Simpson in the fifth minute.
“It was my fault,” Pope said at the time. “I lost sight of him. I was trying to redeem myself for the rest of the game.”
Armas walked through four defenders and fired a 16-yard shot for a seemingly save L.A. advantage in the 56th minute.
“I just picked up a ball 25 yards out and beat and couple of guys,” Armas said. “I shot with my left foot into the lower left corner. It was one of my better MLS goals, not that I have many MLS goals.”
As a defensive midfielder Armas performed a much more vital role, shutting down Etcheverry.
“If it was a fast field on a sunny day, maybe the ball gets to him quicker,” Armas said. “Maybe he does more.
“At that point in those conditions, I thought we did a pretty job of holding them off.”
But United refused to drown in its sorrows of a two-goal deficit or the field, for that matter.
“They stuck in there,” Armas said. “Given them credit.
“We should have put it away at 2-0.”
United was showing little life, so Arena pulled midfielder John Maessner for midfielder Tony Sanneh in the 59th minute and defender Mario Gori for midfielder Shawn Medved in the 70th minute.
“I remember feeling being down 2-0,” Pope said. “The clock is ticking. Something has to be done soon. We definitely could not give up more goals because the ship is sinking.”
That was an appropriate metaphor, given the conditions. But to use another saying, United righted its ship in a hurry.
“It was like it was the 85th minute, creating a sense of urgency,” Pope said. “It certainly wasn’t the best situation. I didn’t have the feeling we couldn’t do it.”
It was United’s strategy that panned out. Etcheverry took advantage of some breaking room on a pair of free kicks.
First, he sent a left-wing cross to Sanneh, who made defender Robin Fraser and headed the ball into the net and past goalkeeper Jorge Campos in the 73rd minute.
Galaxy coach Lothar Osiander, who wanted some fresh legs in the lineup, made a pair of substitutions, replacing forward Harut Karapetyan with forward Ante Razov in the 75th minute and midfielder Jorge Salcedo with Curt Onalfo a minute later.
It didn’t help.
After another Etcheverry free kick, Medved fired a shot that Campos punched back to the midfielder. This time Medved did not miss, sending a right-footed shot in from six yards for the 81st-minute equalizer.
“Great players will find a way to impact the game,” Armas said of Etchevery, who was named game MVP. “He did.”
“The goals were definitely timely,” Pope said. “It was important having the experienced players and older players and Marco taking the game into his hands. . . . He worked his own magic.”
“You get the first goal, OK, something’s happening,” Pope said. “You get them on their heels.”
But Etcheverry, Pope and company were far from finished.
Instead of going into a defensive shell in extratime — a pair of 15-minute periods were scheduled — United continued to attack.
Etcheverry sent a corner into the penalty area. Pope eluded Onalfo and headed the ball past Campos in the fourth minute of extra time.
“I scored a couple of those like that during the year,” Pope said. “It probably helped me not being a well-known player or a dangerous player.
“We worked on that at practice during the week. Marco pretty much put the ball where he wanted it. He sent me a great ball and I finished it.”
Pope’s reaction after the ball found the back of the net?
“More than anything, probably disbelief,” he said.
“Disbelief. Gutted. Not much more,” he said.
In exuberant celebration Pope and several teammates performed a long belly slide in a puddle that was quickly becoming a lake. Hey, they were wet already.
“We were drenched,” he said. “Guys came off the bench to celebrate.”
For Pope it capped a memorable rookie season that, as it turned out, was not quite finished.
“For me, wanting to be a professional soccer player and wanting to be a champion, it took a while for that to settle in,” he said.
“To have an accomplishment like that was unbelievable.
“It was unreal.
“It was surreal.”
Both Pope and Armas went on to forge brilliant MLS careers and became key players on the U.S. national team.
Armas, currently the Red Bulls coach, won an MLS Cup with the Fire in 1998. He got his international call-up in 1998. He has made 66 appearances and missed the 2002 and 2006 World Cups due to knee injuries. He was the best MLS defensive midfielder of his generation.
Pope also played for United’s championship teams in 1997 and 1999. He made his international debut for the U.S. in a 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Trinidad & Tobago only weeks after that MLS Cup. He has earned 82 caps and has played in three World Cups.
“No one can take it away from me,” Pope said. “I’ll always have that experience.”