ALTHOUGH SOCCER is still considered by many to be a 'niche sport' in United States, more Americans are being converted to fans of the glorious game as each year passes.
With the birth of Major League Soccer in 1996, the U.S. once again had a top-flight league, allowing soccer-hungry fans across the country to watch the world's most popular sport in their own backyard.
As a charter member of MLS, D.C. United first stepped on the pitch in 1996, and the team from the Nation's Capital would quickly set the standard for excellence in the league on the field and in the stands.
In its short, seven-year history, D.C. United has earned more domestic and international honours than any other American side, done battle against some of the world's most famous clubs and built a fiercely loyal and dedicated fan base that understands and appreciates world-class soccer.
The club's inaugural season in 1996 would prove to be a fruitful one for the 'Black-and-Red'. After a slow start in league play, United found the right balance and went into the post-season as the team to beat. They proved to be the team that no one could beat, defeating the Los Angeles Galaxy 3-2 on a 'golden goal' header by defender Eddie Pope in overtime to capture the first MLS Cup title on October 20.
One title wasn't enough for the Black-and-Red as three days later United would blank the Rochester Rhinos of the A-League 3-0 to win the U.S. Open Cup, the country's oldest soccer tournament. The Black-and-Red became the first club, and only one since, to capture America's version of the 'double'.
1997 would prove to be another banner year for the Black-and-Red in MLS, as the team rolled through the regular season with a league-best record of 21-11. United went a perfect 5-0 in the MLS Cup play-offs, which culminated in a 2-1 victory over the Colorado Rapids in MLS Cup '97 in front of a record home crowd of 57,431 at RFK Stadium.
The following year United would fail to capture domestic honours for the first time, losing to the Chicago Fire 2-0 in MLS Cup '98. Though United would be disappointed on the home front, their previous success gave them the opportunity to seek honours on a larger stage.
After reaching the semifinals of the CONCACAF Champions Cup in 1997, the Black-and-Red made it one step further to the finals in 1998, where they faced Mexican 'supercampeon' Toluca. A dramatic 1-0 victory at RFK Stadium not only gave the Black-and-Red their first international trophy, but also a chance for a second by earning a berth in the 1998 Interamerican Cup. Legendary Brazilian side Vasco da Gama would be South America's representative, and they would prove to be a formidable one after taking leg one of the championship at RFK Stadium by a 1-0 score. However, United would shock the Brazilian team, and much of the soccer world, by winning the away leg at Lockhart Stadium in Ft. Lauderdale by a 2-1 margin. Thanks to the pair of away goals, United broke the aggregate goals draw and came away with the Interamerican Cup trophy and the title of 'Champion of the Americas'.
That contest would prove to be a fitting farewell for head coach Bruce Arena, who left the District to conquer further international battles as the head coach of the United States Men's National Team. Arena left behind a legacy that would prove to be hard to follow, as he guided the Black-and-Red to an impressive 87-37-1 mark (.700) in all competitions in his three years at the helm.
The 1999 season would feature a new coach as former Tampa Bay and New England head coach Thomas Rongen took over. United would still produce the same successful results their supporters now demanded, as the squad earned their second Supporters Shield for the league's best regular season record (23-9) and once again represented the Eastern Conference in MLS Cup. Just as in 1996, MLS Cup '99 would feature the Black-and-Red and the Galaxy in Foxboro, but this time dramatics were not necessary as a pair of first half goals gave United a 2-0 victory and their third Alan I. Rothenberg Trophy in four seasons.
As the 1990's left, so did the groundbreaking success that United enjoyed in their first four seasons in MLS. The 2000 and 2001 seasons provided a few bright moments, mostly through the play of a pair of teenaged stars-in-the-making midfielder Bobby Convey and forward Santino Quaranta. In 2000, the then 16-year-old Convey became the youngest player to turn out for an MLS side when he took the pitch in the season opener against Los Angeles on March 25. That record would stand for little more than a year, when a younger 16-year-old Quaranta would not only become the youngest player in MLS history, but would also be named the youngest All-Star selection and Player of the Week in league history.
After two disappointing seasons, the Black-and-Red got an early start to the 2002 campaign by naming former Miami Fusion F.C. head man Ray Hudson as the club's third head coach on January 8. Hudson saw his new club's push for the post-season last until the final match of the schedule, but the Black-and-Red missed out on the MLS Cup playoffs for the third straight season. However, 2002 did have some bright spots with a trio of club and league firsts. Domestically, United hosted the 2002 MLS All-Star Game at RFK Stadium for the first time and also won the inaugural Atlantic Cup trophy in what is to become an annual competition with their chief rival, the MetroStars.
Internationally, the Black-and-Red became the first MLS side to travel to England when they came to the Lane for the Tottenham Tribute Match in October. A crowd of 27,000 watched on as DC came out 1-0 winners.
Throughout its seven years, the Black-and-Red have earned the right to square off against some of the world's most recognisable clubs in both international competition and friendly contests. Since 1997, D.C. United has travelled across the globe and done battle against 25 clubs from 13 countries. The list of clubs is an impressive one, including Germany's Beyer Leverkusen, Mexico's Club America and Toluca, Vasco da Gama of Brazil, Argentina's Boca Juniors and Leeds United, Newcastle United and Spurs.
Just as impressive as the roll call of international competition D.C. United has faced over the years is the roster of talented players that have donned the Black-and-Red jersey. The list of world-class players that have called RFK Stadium home over the years includes a legacy of great defenders that have represented the United States in the 1998 and 2002 World Cup finals: Eddie Pope (1996-2002), Jeff Agoos (1996-2000) and Carlos Llamosa (1997-2000). The United midfield has been anchored from the start by Bolivian legend and 1998 MLS MVP Marco Etcheverry (1996-present), and also seen U.S. internationals John Harkes (1996-98), Tony Sanneh (1996-98) and Ben Olsen (1998-present) contribute to the club's success during the dynasty years. The front line has featured a trio of players that find themselves in the top four of the MLS all-time goals scored list: Roy Lassiter (1998-99, 2002), Raul Diaz Arce (1996-97, 2000-01) and United's all-time leading scorer Jaime Moreno (1996-2002).
We take a close look at the brief and very successful history of DC United before our trip to the States for the Capital Cup on May 14...