Rain, pageantry and a golden goal: Remembering the first MLS Cup final

<span>Photograph: Simon Bruty/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Simon Bruty/Getty Images

As Columbus Crew and LAFC prepare to meet in the 28th edition of the MLS Cup Saturday, US soccer’s crown-jewel showdown has come a long way since its inaugural final back in 1996, played between DC United and LA Galaxy on a rain-soaked pitch in Foxborough, Massachusetts.

Yet despite the unquestionable uptick in quality of play, coaching and infrastructure the league has witnesses since, the first-ever MLS Cup might never be beaten for sheer entertainment.

Long before Lionel Messi’s seismic impact upon arriving Stateside and still more than a decade shy of David Beckham’s epoch-shifting time in the league, Major League Soccer was formed in the wake of the USA-hosted 1994 World Cup as the first professional American soccer league since the NASL’s disbandment in 1984.

“It was a bit of a start-up situation where everyone was trying to figure it out,” says Cobi Jones, the LA Galaxy winger who was one of the early stars of the new league. “You talk about the Premier League and football in England, it’s been around hundreds of years. Major league baseball had been around over 100 years. This was very new. The LA Galaxy expected 15,000 to 20,000 fans at the first game. They ended up having 67,000 show up. They were a little under-prepared – didn’t know the market, didn’t know what to expect.”

Alongside Jones, the Galaxy boasted one of the league’s early star signings in the flamboyant Mexican goalkeeper Jorge Campos and were coached by former national team boss Lothar Osiander. They raced to the summit of the Western Conference, winning 12 successive games to open the season.

It was a different story in DC. Bruce Arena’s side won just one of their first seven games, before a turnaround in the latter part of the campaign saw them secure the second seed in the East.

“The team had started slow,” remembers midfielder Tony Sanneh, a mid-season signing for DC. “Bruce was trying to get me earlier, but the league wouldn’t pay me any more. They had these really strict cap limits on what they would pay people based on where they were from. It just didn’t make sense for me to move to a big city and actually lose money. So they started to lose. The more they lost, I got more and more calls.

“[Arena] runs a very competitive environment. You could tell right away that he was building winners. By the end of the season, our biggest competition was in practice.”

After beating the New York/New Jersey MetroStars two games to one in the first round of the playoffs, DC continued their momentum as they swept the top-seeded Tampa Bay Mutiny in the Eastern Conference Finals. On the other side of the playoff bracket, the Galaxy beat the San Jose Clash in three games before sweeping the Kansas City Wiz to set-up a final showdown with DC in Foxborough.

When they arrived in New England, the DC and LA players found the Foxborough field flooded. Heavy rain from Hurricane Lilli threatened MLS’s inaugural showpiece.

“I didn’t cross our mind [that out would be called off],” Jones says. “I think if it was in today’s era of the game, it would have been called off. There was a cyclone and a downpour on a field that wasn’t prepared for soccer in that type of environment. It was a solid field and the water was dumping everywhere, making it hard to play.”

“It was bad weather, but usually you play in bad weather,” adds Sanneh. “It wasn’t until we got there and saw the condition of the field that we thought it may be cancelled. We just had to roll with it. The field was worse than we thought it was going to be.”

Initially, the Galaxy adjusted best to the adverse weather conditions. Eduardo Hurtado fired the Western Conference champions into an early lead. Then, 10 minutes into the second half, midfielder Chris Armas waltzed through the DC defence and put LA 2-0 ahead with a low shot that skidded over the sodden grass and into the bottom corner of Mark Simpson’s goal.

“Going up by two, you’re thinking, ‘This is good,’” Jones says. “And it wasn’t just that we were up two. We were playing well, too. It was just unfortunate that some injuries happened and some substitutions threw everything out of whack, with Jorge Salcedo being taken off. It showed how much he was helping win balls in midfield with Chris Armas that when he was taken off, it turned things around.”

It was one of Arena’s substitutions that had the biggest impact of all. Sanneh had been a regular starter for DC until an injury late in the season. Having returned to fitness, he was disappointed to have been named on the bench for the MLS Cup final. When he was called on to replace John Maessner after 59 minutes, he wasted no time in showing why he felt he should’ve been on the sodden field the whole time, rising to head home from a Marco Etcheverry free kick in the 73rd minute.

“Once we got into the final, Bruce was like, ‘We’re going to go with the same line-up as the last game,’” Sanneh recalls. “I was like, ‘Wait a minute? I played every single minute, I get one injury and I’m not getting my place back.’

“For me, personally, I was really, really upset. It wasn’t until the day before the game, at kick around, my sponsor, Adidas, gave me a nice little gift at the stadium. I just thought, ‘You know what? Life could be worse. I’m playing in the pros, I’m here, I’m getting free stuff. Just be ready.’

“When they brought me in, they just told me to go and make something happen, make a difference. I went in with energy. It was a beautiful ball by Marco and I was able to put it away. I would like to think I helped change the momentum of the game.”

Jones almost wrested back the momentum in the 78th minute, but his swirling 30-yard strike crashed off the crossbar and away to safety.

“You always think they’re going in, right?” Jones says. “If you’re a good striker, you think every shot you hit is going in. I was a little dismayed it didn’t go in, but you continue to play, continue to do your duty.”

Three minutes later, DC found an equaliser. Once again it was a set-piece delivery from Man of the Match Etcheverry that was the catalyst, with Shawn Medved scoring after LA failed to clear the initial free kick. DC were in the ascendancy, but, as Sanneh recalls, they were not going gung-ho for the win in regulation.

“Our mindset was, after we’d had that big emotional lift, play to win the game, but that means all aspects of the game,” Sanneh says. “That means not just scoring but putting ourselves in a position to not concede goal. We had fresh subs that came in and we were making a difference. Our mindset was to win the game, but we weren’t taking risks to do it.”

A winning goal almost arrived in the final minutes of the 90 when Etcheverry’s scrambled close-range effort struck the post. United didn’t have to wait long for their victory-clinching strike, though. Just four minutes into extra time, defender Eddie Pope – a future mainstay of the USMNT – rose above Curt Analfo at the near post to head another expert Etcheverry delivery, this time from a corner kick, high into Campos’ net. With the now-defunct golden goal rule in effect, the was no right of reply for the Galaxy. The game was over and DC were the first MLS Cup champions.

Pope raced to the sideline, chased by his team-mates, and slid, belly first, across the rain-bathed pitch, giving MLS one of its first iconic images. Pope was still a student at the University of North Carolina, the same school where Michael Jordan rose to prominence in the 1980s. Just two days after his MLS Cup triumph, he’d be back at school to sit three exams. His cup-winning header was perhaps the most impactful scoring effort by an active UNC student since Jordan swished a mid-range jump-shot in a 1982 NCAA Championship victory over Georgetown.

“There were some guys in that first year that were finishing off their schooling,” Sanneh says. “The league was just starting and nobody really knew what to expect. It wasn’t like they were paying people enough to give up everything.

“I just remember joy. In that team, we had superstars but we worked so hard together. That group of 15, we were so competitive. Our younger players were lesser known. We were on the road to being world-class players. We loved challenging the big names. It was really good that we all got to contribute to that game. It brought us all together.”

“Being up 2-0 and then losing the match on a golden goal, you look back on all the various moment when things could possibly have changed, or where you could’ve turned things around,” Jones says. “But you have to remember that you did the best you could in the moment. It just didn’t work out for us. DC had a great performance in there, with Eddie Pope and Etcheverry with his delivery on set pieces. They beat us to the punch in a lot of situations where you’d hope your team would have done better.”