There was a time where it felt like the Columbus Crew would face D.C. United in the playoffs every single year. From 1997 to 1999, the teams squared off three consecutive seasons in the Eastern Conference Finals. The league was four years old then.
Those Crew teams were loaded with talent. The 1998 team featured five players from that summer’s World Cup—Brian McBride, Brian Maisonneuve, Thomas Dooley, Juergen Sommer, and Andy Williams. Those players were bolstered by young strikers Stern John and Jeff Cunningham, who would quickly make names for themselves in club and league lore, plus another World Cup vet in defender Mike Lapper. And that still doesn’t paint the entire picture of the talent and depth on that roster.
Unfortunately, United’s roster was also loaded. They had the “magic triangle” of Jaime Moreno, Raul Diaz Arce, and Marco “El Diablo” Etcheverry. They had John Harkes. They had Jeff Agoos. They had Eddie Pope. And so much more.
Those Crew teams were capable of not only beating United, but thumping them. After getting swept in 1997, the Crew won home playoff games by the scores of 4-2 and 5-1 in each of the next two seasons. Unfortunately, each of those wins forced a third and decisive game at RFK Stadium. In 1998, the Crew lost 3-0. In 1999, it was 4-0.
If you had told me back then that the Crew and D.C. United wouldn’t meet again in the playoffs for 19 years, I’d have breathed a sigh of relief. It meant this wasn’t hell on earth and the torment would not be eternal. Or at least not constant.
19 years later, there we were. Although this year’s Crew team finished even on points with D.C. United, they were still considered an underdog heading into Thursday night. United surged up the standings upon moving into their new stadium, Audi Field, and acquiring English star Wayne Rooney. They had all the momentum and home-field advantage, whereas the Crew muddled through the regular season stretch run and struggled on the road all season.
Seeing the banana kit against the malevolent black brought back all kinds of memories, most of them frightening. When Zack Steffen fumbled a cross that created an easy D.C. goal to make it 1-0, long-dormant D.C. anguish suddenly felt as if it had never gone away.
The Crew tied it on a goalmouth finish by Federico Higuain. The game remained tied into extra time, whereupon Higuain’s exquisite header gave the Crew the lead. For a moment, I forgot that it was D.C. in the playoffs. I let myself get carried away with visions of victory. Of course, near the end of extra time, a poor clearance and a perfect strike by Nick DeLeon sent the game to penalty kicks. That ol’ D.C. doom was suffocating me once again.
Then Steffen saved a PK by Wayne Rooney. And another one by Luciano Acosta. It was all set up for Patrick Mullins, traded from D.C. to Columbus midseason, to convert the kick that would send the Crew through and finally vanquish D.C. United in the playoffs. As he swung his leg forward, the wind blew the ball half a rotation to the side. His shot clanged off the goalpost.
At that moment, I had resigned myself to the fact the Columbus Crew would never ever beat D.C. United in the playoffs. After all, when Satan—clearly a D.C. fan dating back to the El Diablo days—gustily farts so as to move a stationary soccer ball at the last possible moment so the Crew miss a game-winning PK, what more evidence do you need?
My hypothesis was immediately disproven.
DeLeon, the hero who had sent the game to penalties just minutes earlier, struggled to find a place where Steffen couldn’t likely make another PK save. It’s got to be unnerving. He found an unsaveable placement over top of the crossbar.
For the first time ever, with revenge 19 years in the making, the Columbus Crew advanced past D.C. United in the MLS Cup playoffs.
Nearly two decades too late and not a moment too soon.
As a way to bridge the two generations of Columbus Crew players, I sought out comment from some of the guys from 1997-1999 era to get their thoughts on the Crew knocking off United at last. Here’s what they had to say…
“I was a proud alum last night. When we often went to RFK, we often played at a level, for whatever reason, where we didn’t deserve a result. Last night, watching Berhalter’s Boys, they were deserving of a victory. Incredible performances all around and, obviously being D.C. United, it had to have some end of game drama. Second goal by Pipa was all class, but watching Wil Trapp pull the strings was my favorite part. I’m not sure the casual fan realizes just how good he is…”
“Avenging an old ghost…current Crew SC are just a blast to watch – a fun system of play mixed with youth and experience. Awesome to be a Crew fan!!!”
“D.C. was pretty dominant back in those days…great to see the team pull out the win last night. Exciting stuff for the entire club!”
“D.C. United eliminated us in the Conference Finals three years in a row. Every playoff game at RFK was cold, dark and wet…both literally and figuratively….or at least it felt like it. There is no question that DCU had some great teams in those days…Etcheverry, Pope, Harkes, Moreno. But I always thought we were pretty stacked as well and we had them on the ropes on more than one occasion. So, yes, it was pretty sweet to see the boys exorcise that demon for all the 1990s players and fans last night.
“While the team started a little frantic last night, it was a lot of fun watching them turn it on. Over the course of the past year, this team, and club, has been writing a pretty incredible story and I, for one, can’t wait to see how the final chapters play out.”
“D.C. was the team during the late 90s. So talented and deep with a great winning culture. So difficult to get past in our conference! Nice to see our Crew get past them! Really happy to see the Crew move on in the playoffs!”
“Oh man, that was fantastic! Here’s what I think. RFK Stadium was a difficult place to play and D.C. was very, very good team. They had some really outstanding players, so losing to them was not a curse. It was just that they were just better. We beat them many times, but never there. I think it was just a tough game and not a curse. I never believed that and our players never believed that.
“Now the Crew won! I’m super proud of Steffen for his saves on Rooney and Acosta. Their two best players and our goalkeeper robbed them. I loved it. The hair on my neck stood up. Steffen, you’re the man! Lot of excitement last night and I wish them the best. We’ll see how far they can go, and with that spirit, I’m so excited. I want them to go all the way.”
And lastly, a brief mixture of #SaveTheCrew and #ClaimGlory as texted by the one and only…
“We built it…you fought to keep it. CREW FOREVER! Bring the cup back home. Good luck men.”