The classic opening to a bad novel applies to the first Major League Soccer Cup championship match. The Nor’easter that blew through New England on the weekend of October 20, 1996 turned the field at Foxborough Stadium, in the town of Foxborough, MA, southwest of Boston, into a swamp, a lake in some parts, and a weather scene that added to the drama of the first championship, played between the Los Angeles Galaxy and D.C. United. The weather certainly didn’t intimidate fans, as over 34,000 showed up to witness history.
Was this an auspicious warning from the gods that soccer on North American soil was not blessed or was it nature determining that a professional game that had faced challenges and failures over its long history was ready to meet this challenge and become stronger? There was fretting in the front offices, but in the locker rooms there was the same intensity and determination found in every championship locker room.
While the weather was, indeed, brutal, the match was a classic. The Galaxy opened the scoring in the 5th minute when Mauricio Cienfuegos cut the ball back on the right side of the box and his cross found the head of Eduardo Hurtado. The first half ended with LA up 1 – 0. Just 11 minutes into the second half, the Galaxy doubled the lead as Chris Armas dribbled through the center and left-footed a shot into the corner from the top of the box.
Conditions continued to deteriorate, but the play did not, as D.C. United pressed for a way back into the game. First a Marco Etcheverry free kick from the left found Tony Sanneh at the far post and the lead was halved in the 73rd minute. Nine minutes another Etcheverry free kick was driven into the penalty area. LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jorge Campos got a fist to it under pressure, but the ball skidded off his hand into the center of the area where United’s Shawn Medved took the shot. Campos made the save but could not hold the ball. It rebounded back to Medved who did not miss on the second opportunity. Match tied!
The Championship went to sudden-death overtime and, again, Etcheverry was the key, taking a corner kick just four minutes into the first period that Eddie Pope headed home for the game winner – 3 to 2 for D.C. United, the first MLS Cup champions!
Would the game have the same history if it were played on a sunny crisp fall afternoon amidst the foliage of beautiful New England? Who’s to know? But the weather and teams combined to create a classic on MLS’ first big championship stage – a game that all who experienced will always hold as a memory of historic proportions.
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