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Jerry's World

Dallas shakes stigma of mediocrity; Columbus also seeks new attitude.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

Thursday, October 28, 1999) -- The Dallas Burn has shed one label, maybe it's time for Columbus Crew to drop another.

Major League Soccer has its four best teams in the best-of-three semifinals, which begin Sunday. The Burn, stigmatized by mediocrity throughout most of its four-year franchise history, produced one of MLS's electrifying moments last night, rallying from two goals down to defeat defending champion Chicago Fire 3-2.

The victory was achieved without two injured defenders, Brandon Pollard and Richard Farrar. It came after the Burn yielded two point-blank goals in the first five minutes. The win was no fluke.

Dallas, with a .500 record the first three years, was puttering around at 11-12 this season before exploding in the stretch run, closing with an 8-1 burst. The 19-13 record (51 points) was four games better than last year's 15-17 mark with an injury-plagued team, and the 54-39 goals-differential represented a seismic improvement from the dismal 43-59 mark in 1998.

There was a second-game relapse against the Fire, falling, 4-0, but overall the Burn has been the best team in MLS the past two months. Much is attributed to the late-season arrival of Ecuadorian national team starter Ariel Graziani, a striker acquired from the New England Revolution.

The price was steep -- popular star defensive midfielder Leonel Alvarez -- but Dallas had the depth and talent to replace him, not completely, but enough. Graziani has provided the missing link in the Dallas attack -- a persistent, innovative, explosive scoring threat at forward.

A hidden factor in the Burn's success has been another player obtained courtesy the Revolution, relatively unsung Oscar Pareja, acquired last year in a trade. He is no Marco Etcheverry or Carlos Valderrama or Mauricio Cienfuegos, but he has provided a strong complementary playmaking skills for the Burn attack that was No. 2 in goals scored this year.

Few expect Dallas to be able to contend with the Western Conference regular-season champion Los Angeles Galaxy in the best-of-three conference final. The Galaxy has the best defense in MLS, backed up by the hottest goalkeeper, Kevin Hartman.

The offense, which misfired early in the season, is keyed by Cienfuegos, ably assisted by overlapping defender Ezra Hendrickson and midfielder Roy Myers, both formerly with the New York\New Jersey MetroStars, and forwards Cobi Jones, recovering from a very slow first four months, and Carlos Hermosillo, whose play has been erratic. But in their last meeting, Dallas rallied from a two-goal deficit to down Los Angeles 4-3.

The Galaxy has an image to shed, too: losing big games.

The Columbus Crew, anxious to drop its "underachieving'' label, has its best chance ever to win at RFK Stadium, where the Eastern Conference runnerup has lost 11 straight times.

D.C. United midfielder Richie Williams will miss Sunday's opener due to a red-card suspension in the second Miami Fusion playoff match. The two-time MLS champions have won games with five or six players missing before, but it faltered early in the season with Williams injured, and revived when the diminutive veteran returned to action.

He is the link between a veteran defense and the explosive offense led by Etcheverry and forward Jaime Moreno. Just as important, he is a pest on defense known for effective and persistent marking of rival playmakers. He is the epitome of the smothering pressure D.C. United applies that has suffocated Columbus in the past.

The Crew may have the best two-man strike force in Major League Soccer with Stern John and Brian McBride, but they need to get the ball where they can do damage. Columbus has speed on the flanks and a rugged defense -- though it has had problems containing Etcheverry -- backed up by strong goalkeeper Mark Dougherty.

The Crew's depth is outstanding. Not many teams have the likes of forward Jeff Cunningham and World Cup veterans midfielder Andrew Williams and defender Thomas Dooley coming off the bench. But it needs to control the midfield, where attack-oriented and injury-prone Brian Maisonneuve has struggled at times. Robert Warzycha is an able veteran hand.

D.C. United has virtually the same team as last year, albeit with less depth. Diego Sonora is a plus at right back. But Tony Sanneh and John Harkes are missed in the midfield. Moreno and midfielder Ben Olsen are having improved seasons.

The problem has been its All-Star defense, wracked by injuries and inconsistent play except for the brilliant veteran Jeff Agoos. Despite breakdowns, though, D.C. United allowed just 43 goals, a club record, with the franchise average 52 goals the first three years. Alone of the four teams, it is proud of its heritage: dominant team in Major League Soccer.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.

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