Stars, bars and a golden goal to relish; ONE DAY IN AMERICA

SOCCER; John Carlin watches as a nation is enthralled by a cup final that promises to lift the game into a new dimension
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The Independent Online
Fairy-tale. Epic. Pulsating. Historic. All the cliches apply to describe the biggest domestic soccer match ever played on American soil, the five-goal thriller that decided the outcome of the first ever Major League Soccer cup final on Sunday.

DC United, the underdogs from Washington, defeated Los Angeles Galaxy, already established as the glamour club of the MLS, by three goals to two, having been two goals down with 17 minutes of the match remaining. The winner, a sudden-death "golden goal", came five minutes into extra time.

The game was played in the sort of conditions that persuaded the faint hearts of Merseyside to call off Sunday's derby: relentless torrential rain that, even before the game began, had reduced large areas of New England's Foxboro pitch to conditions more suitable for water polo. Most parts of the stadium provided no cover from the elements, yet 35,000 fans, the majority neutrals, stayed through to the end and for the celebrations beyond.

The big fish, before the game began, were Galaxy, who dominated the infant MLS season after winning their first 12 games in a row and then proceeded to pack in consistently the biggest crowds in the league: 30,000- plus. United, on the other hand, lost eight of their first 10 matches and rarely saw crowds of more than 20,000 at Washington's RFK Memorial Stadium. By the end of May it appeared as clear that Galaxy were going to cruise to glory - either them or Tampa Bay Mutiny, who in the blond, dreadlocked Colombian Carlos Valderrama have enjoyed the services of the award-winning MLS player of the year.

Yet, against all the odds, DC United beat Tampa roundly in the best-of- three semi-final play-offs after defeating Roberto Donadoni's New York/New Jersey MetroStars in the quarters. It is perhaps inappropriate to draw comparisons so early on in the life of US professional soccer, but until their late burst United appeared to be the Coventry of the MLS - plucky but condemned to lower table anonymity. Pluck was the quality most required in Sunday's appalling weather conditions and it was Galaxy who displayed more of it initially - all the more admirable as they come from Southern California, where it never rains. For this they had Eduardo Hurtado to thank. Remarkably for an Ecuadorean, Hurtado is 6ft 3in and weighs 14 stone. He is strong, hard, fast and full of heart - a little too much, perhaps, as he was fortunate not to be sent off by the referee for playing at times as if this were not soccer but American football.

It was he who scored the first goal in the fifth minute, spreading the ball wide from midfield to El Salvador's diminutive Mauricio Cienfuegos on the right wing, running into the penalty area to meet a curling cross and rising high above the defence to power a header the top right hand corner. So dominant was Hurtado in the first half against his marker, United's home-grown central defender Edwin Pope, that one of the commentators on ABC television remarked that Hurtado's nickname should be changed from "the Tank" to "all-purpose, all-terrain vehicle".

As the game progressed Pope, one of the few black American players in MLS, began to get the measure of the mighty Hurtado, began to look, indeed, like the very model of the fast, skilful, intelligent defender the modern game increasingly requires. It was he who sparked United's sodden festivities when he scored the winning goal, also from an excellent header, after a cross from the man-of-the-match, Bolivia's Marco Antonio Etcheverry.

Despite the ABC commentators' observation early on that Galaxy's Cobi Jones and United's John Harkes would both benefit from their experience in England - "these are pretty well normal field conditions for a game in the English league" - they did not shine. The ABC men did volunteer a couple of other odd remarks, such as "a 2-0 lead in soccer is the most dangerous lead you can have", but all in all they displayed an understanding of the game that has matured enormously since the baby-talk US viewers endured - or perhaps required - during the last World Cup.

The standard of play has also matured. As the US national team showed in the World Cup there is no shortage of energy and enthusiasm in the American game, but the whole has tended to be greater than the parts. But what Sunday's cup final revealed is that the finesse of players like Etcheverry and Valderrama has rubbed off on the natives. They may have no individuals yet who match the skill of the Latin Americans on the ball, but the teams play the ball along the ground, try a lot of one-touch passing and provide glimpses of what lies ahead in the years to come when the best of the millions of American children for whom soccer has become the dominant sport take on and - as they surely will - beat the world.

No less important, America's sports-mad TV public is slowly but surely taking to soccer. As the Washington Post reported in a lyrical front page story yesterday, in sports bars all over Washington bar-owners switched their TVs from the Redskins' NFL game against the New York Giants to the MLS final. The American football fans not only failed to register any complaints, they were immediately consumed by the fever of the alien spectacle. It was, according to the Post, "an improbable finish that American professional leagues with decades of history would surely envy". And it provided the appropriately heroic finale to an MLS season that has exceeded all expectations in terms of crowd attendance, TV ratings, drama and quality of play. DC United's club motto is "The Tradition Begins". It has proved happily prescient, for them and for soccer in the United States generally.

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