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Op-Ed \ John Haydon

D.C. United descent can be linked to Lassiter departure.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Thursday, August 17, 2000) -- I've been scratching my head a lot these days over the collapse of D.C. United. Who could have imagined such a dramatic fall in form?

While there are number of reasons to explain United's demise, I still feel the loss of striker Roy Lassiter was a major factor. How many times this season has the ball whizzed across an opponent's penalty area just needing a foot to put it away. "There goes another Lassiter goal," I found myself saying time and time again.

Roy Lassiter
D.C. United could not wait to send striker Roy Lassiter to Miami after winning MLS Cup '99, but the team could not replace his goal-scoring and now has the worst record in the league.
With all his failings as a player, Lassiter had an instinct for scoring goals. Numbers don't lie. Lassiter=18 goals in 1999 (not to mention 11 assists). Albright=3 goals in 2000.

While Lassiter missed a number of chances and his heading ability was suspect, he scored goals, and it's goals that win games. You can play all the pretty soccer you like and make 30 passes in a buildup, but if the ball doesn't reach the back of the net, you’re not going to win.

United general manager Kevin Payne said he had to trade Lassiter due to the salary cap, and I believe him. But why couldn't he have traded two or three second-tier players, such as A.J. Wood, Carey Talley or Geoff Aunger for Chris Albright.

It seems United had so much confidence and belief in Chris "I Will Only Play For D.C. United" Albright that it rushed ahead and traded Lassiter just three days after his 18-goal season helped the club win a title. The club was so overconfident, and there was such a feeling of invincibility that Lassiter was shown the door without a second thought.

Down the road, Albright, just like United's other Spice Boy, Ben Olsen, is guaranteed bankable talent. Albright just didn't produce a premium this season.

Lassiter was happy in Washington, D.C., and when he got the boot he left a curse on the club. "I feel a little resentful about leaving a place where I was comfortable," he said recently. "I'm not happy in Miami. I don't plan on staying there another year."

When I took United to task in a column last November over the Lassiter trade, I was slammed by everyone, including Payne and Bruce Arena. I received over 50 e-mails from fans telling me Lassiter was "hopeless," "arrogant," "had an attitude" and "other players could score those goals." There was an arrogant tinge to the e-mails from fans who had been spoiled for too long. Now we all know how spoilt we all were. For four wonderful seasons, United fans feasted on attacking soccer, great escapes and sometimes even miracles -- remember MLS Cup '96? -- as D.C. dominated the American soccer scene.

Now the dream is over and a little humble pie is what remains.

When United was in trouble in the past, one could almost feel the team crank up the intensity. The players had a special pride in wearing the coveted United uniform, and they could never be counted out. But that fighting spirit seems to have gone. Did the spirit leave with coach Bruce Arena in 1998? Was last year's success under Thomas Rongen just a bonus?

Maybe United's fall from glory is a cyclical thing. All dynasties must come to an end, and all empires finally crumble. Legends and myths are all that remain. United dominated MLS in a remarkable way, winning six titles and creating a legendary team. The team was just what the new league needed in 1996 -- a signature club that could carry the banner of American soccer.

United captured the eyes of the world by winning the 1998 CONCACAF Cup and defeating top Brazilian team Vasco da Gama to claim the 1998 InterAmerican Cup. Think about it -- what more could United have done to satisfy its fans? The club won everything it touched, and the myth of its invincibility was created.

Even now, despite its Major League Soccer-worst record, United is considered one of the best teams in MLS. And that's why it's so hard for the players to swallow this season. Just reel off the names on United's roster. The club has 11 players with international experience, but they will all be watching the MLS Cup from the sideline at RFK Stadium, its home field, on October 15.

United has an aura of greatness and is still spoken about with reverence in MLS circles. No one is saying United is a bad team. Miami Fusion coach Ray Hudson recently said his team beat "the 11 best players in MLS" and called United "the best MLS team in the league," even though it was obvious United had played poorly.

Although United has the worst defense in MLS, three of its defenders -- nearly the whole back line -- is called up by the U.S. national team for a crucial World Cup qualifier. Where else in the world could that happen?

"Some players don't have enough fight." said Lassiter concerning United's woes. "It's just not clicking, and if it's not clicking you have to find a solution. You work hard to stay on top because someone out there is working harder than you. Maybe, down the line, D.C. forgot that and it is now catching up with them."

Amen, Roy.

John Haydon is soccer columnist for the Washington Times and can be e-mailed at haydon@twtmail.com.

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