The new `baby' is kicking

John Carlin in Washington sees a game in its infancy grow in popularity ; Capitol games: As a city adjusts to football with a new accent, baseball's battle of Alomar develops into a national debate

"The tradition begins" is the motto of DC United, an infant professional soccer club fast emerging as the most successful sporting entity in a city long dominated by its wealthy American Football cousins, the Washington Redskins.

The very notion of a tradition beginning is a contradiction. Traditions belong in the past, not the future. But Americans are nothing if not inventive and the signs are that in the case of Washington United, as with professional soccer in the US generally, ambition is paying off.

Major League Soccer, better known as the MLS, kicked off only last spring but attendances are 50 per cent above projection (18,000 average) and already a heated rivalry has developed of the type associated with ancient warriors like Celtic and Rangers. It may not yet be the stuff of legend, but DC United and the New York Metrostars hate each other. In their first four encounters the players collected 23 yellow cards between them. Eight days ago, in the second of three play-offs for a place in the MLS Cup semi-final, United's star striker, the Bolivian former Middlesbrough player Jaime Moreno, was sent off for throwing a punch.

So the stage was set tantalisingly on Wednesday night for the decisive play-off between the two at the Redskins' mighty Robert F Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Simultaneously, in the other three quarter- finals, Tampa Bay Mutiny were playing Columbus Crew, Kansas City were playing Dallas Burn and San Jose Clash were playing Los Angeles Galaxy, already established as the MLS glamour club with average home attendances of over 30,000.

When the DC United players ran out on to the RFK pitch, the welcome would have drowned out a low-flying jumbo jet. When the Metrostars ran out, led by Roberto Donadoni, the chorus of rage provided a taste of what Manchester United can expect when they meet Fenerbahce in Istanbul.

You could have been forgiven for thinking these two teams shared a long, bitter history. You could have been forgiven, too, for imagining you were not in the United States of America, where sports crowds tend to be exciteable but less feverish than elsewhere. There was a reason for this. We were not, in fact, in the United States of America. The biggest stadium in the capital of the world's most powerful nation had been colonised for the night by Mexicans and Salvadoreans.

The few all-American palefaces present looked as bewildered as if they had been abruptly transported to a football ground in Guadalajara where the voices on the loudspeaker system spoke Spanish and the pre-match chatter was all about the need for the home team to display some "cojones".

There are other peculiarities about soccer in the US. Before the game the players stood to attention in the centre circle listening to a man singing the "Star-Spangled Banner" (in English); the pitch was crazily zig-zagged with soccer and American football markings; large electronic clocks around the stadium counted down the minutes and seconds remaining of play in each half and the referee, who signalled the invisible time- lords to freeze the clocks during injury stoppages, blew the final whistle the instant the numbers showed 00.00.

The sheer detail of the information provided in the match programmes will also have surprised any hardened Hispanic fans who read English. Statistics fanatics would have been delighted to learn the name of the MLS goalkeeper who handled the ball the fewest times this season in the first half of a game, the name of the team who have accumulated the most second-half corners, and so forth. The osteopath contingent at Wednesday's game would have thrilled by the news that United's busy midfielder Richie Williams was bravely entering the fray despite suffering from a bout of "ilio Tibial Band Tendonitis", vulgarly known as bruised shins.

The game itself was exciting, the play interesting - like an English team playing the continental style. It was possession football, played diligently along the ground, by players who sometimes lacked the technique to match. Donadoni, playing not on the wing (as he has done 71 times for Italy) but in a midfield attacking Cantona role, looked for most of the game as if he was day-dreaming about his glory days in Milan alongside Gullit and Van Basten. But he woke up to wallop a free-kick from the Redskins' 30-yard line against the post and to thread through the "assist" that led to the Metrostars' equaliser with four minutes and 13 seconds to go. Marco "El Diablo" (the Devil) Etcheverry, United's second Bolivian, was then fouled in the penalty area and, with one minute and 23 seconds remaining, it was fittingly a Salvadorean, Raul Diaz Arce, who ripped the ball into the back of the net.

The 20,343 crowd bellowed "United! United!" and, when the final whistle blew, a thousand fans ran on to the pitch, jumping over Metrostar players on their knees, abandoning themselves to the tribal euphoria that grips soccer fans everywhere after victory over an "auld enemy". It may be too early to tell whether the tradition will continue but it has most certainly begun.

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