MLS title contenders offer study in contrasts Defending champ United started fast, faces fast-closing Rapids

October 25, 1997|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Tomorrow's second MLS Cup, American pro soccer's Super Bowl, could be described as Major League Soccer's 500-pound canary, D.C. United, taking on the interesting but less weighty Tweety Bird, the Colorado Rapids.

The one-game final pitting playoff winners from MLS' Eastern and Western conferences will produce the league's 1997 champion.

The game at sold-out RFK Stadium in Washington, where a crowd of 56,000-plus may break RFK's all-time attendance record, could be on television in 130 countries.

If the site seems unfair to the Rapids, MLS chose it more than a year ago, before United rallied in driving rain from two goals down with 20 minutes left to beat the Los Angeles Galaxy in overtime for the first MLS Cup at Foxboro (Mass.) Stadium. Rain is forecast again for tomorrow.

The contenders are a study in contrasts.

Downplaying odds heavily favoring his team, United coach Bruce Arena told a news conference with both squads present yesterday the Rapids "were the best team in the playoffs" and "have played the best soccer in the league in the last month."

But United is 32-13-2 this season, counting tournaments and exhibitions as far away as Hong Kong, 32 league games and playoffs. It completed a run of 22 games without a defeat in regulation -- an accomplishment in any pro sport. And it has nine straight playoff wins.

Despite its mind- and body-grinding schedule, during which Arena started 40 different lineups involving 24 players, United clinched first in the East early.

When United plays well offensively, it switches the ball from side to side quickly and builds attacks systematically, sometimes with a dozen or more passes.

Four United players saw U.S. team duty this year, and four others play for their countries. Playmaker Marco Etcheverry is a mesmerizing superstar. MLS' two top goal-scorers, Jaime Moreno and Raul Diaz Arce, put in 31 of United's league-best 70 goals.

But such is United's strength that when the entertaining Latin trio was away -- often -- for World Cup and other matches, Arena's quick-moving offense hardly missed a beat. Nine other players scored at least three goals each, and 11 had four or more assists.

National team captain John Harkes and MLS All-Star Richie Williams do the unsung ball-control stuff in midfield. United defends capably when it matters, with national team regulars Eddie Pope and Jeff Agoos the best known and Carlos Llamosa and David Vaudreuil completing a tenacious flat-back four.

United coasted into the playoffs, then zapped the New England Revolution and Columbus Crew, the latter with MLS' stingiest defense, with four straight wins.

By contrast, the Rapids are 20-20 overall. That they even qualified for the title game was surprising. At 11-21 a year ago, they were easily MLS' worst team, last on the field and in attendance.

Major retooling by new general manager Dan Counce, the Baltimore Blast's GM from 1986 to 1990, and new coach Glenn "Mooch" Myernick's disciplined, possession-oriented style have produced positive, if erratic, results.

After the Rapids' first visit to RFK in June, a 5-0 thrashing on top of a 5-2 April defeat by United in 20-degree weather in Denver, Myernick said he felt "like I should pay someone for a ticket."

But the last time Colorado visited RFK, on Aug. 2, the improved Rapids took a 3-2 shootout win.

By mid-August, the 13-12 Rapids were challenging for first in the MLS West. But then they lost six straight, only clinching fourth place with a 14-18 record with a win on the season's last day.

To get into tomorrow's game, the Rapids ousted two teams they were 1-7 against during the season. Down in two games went MLS West's first-place Kansas City Wizards, whose 21-11 record matched United's and who some thought could win this MLS Cup. Out in two more games went second-place Dallas.

The Rapids' playmaking midfielder, Chris Henderson, MLS' third-best assist man (14), and Paul Bravo lead all playoff scorers.

"This is a Cinderella story that just keeps marching along," said Myernick. "We seem to be playing better with each game, which is great at this time of season."

MLS Cup '97 Who: D.C. United vs. Colorado Rapids

When: 3: 30 p.m. tomorrow

Where: RFK Stadium, Washington

Tickets: None available

TV: chs. 2, 7

Pub Date: 10/25/97

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