FOXBORO, Mass. -- The vast majority of soccer games are won or lost at midfield, and the Major League Soccer championship game today will be no different.
For both the Los Angeles Galaxy and D.C. United, finalists in the inaugural major-league season, midfield is their strength. John Harkes, Marco Etcheverry, Richie Williams and John Maessner of United have been the league's best combination in midfield in the playoffs; the Galaxy relies heavily on the inventiveness of Mauricio Cienfuegos and the speed of Cobi Jones on the flanks.
"Midfield is where the game will be decided," said Harkes, the captain of United and an integral part of the national team for the last two World Cups. "The field is kind of narrow, and there will be some battles for possession in that area."
Possession and control of the midfield will be crucial, but the winner will be the team whose midfielders provide the best service to the forwards.
Cienfuegos and Etcheverry, both of whom were named to the 1996 MLS All-Pro Team, are masterful passers; the one who is not neutralized effectively will benefit his team a great deal.
United coach Bruce Arena has Williams to harass Cienfuegos and Maessner to track down Jones from attacking the flanks. If Galaxy coach Lothar Osuander finds a way to shadow Etcheverry, Harkes has the capability to take over Etcheverry's offensive responsibilities.
Arena may also have the advantage on the forward line, where Raul Diaz Arce has been the most productive for United, both in the regular season and the playoffs. Arce finished second in the league with 23 goals in the regular season.
"I have been blessed with some fortune on the field," Diaz Arce, a deeply religious man from El Salvador, said about his goal scoring.
"But there are some better players on the team than me," Diaz Arce said, alluding to Etcheverry, Harkes and Jaime Moreno, his partner on attack.
With Steve Rammel just as productive as Moreno, United has more depth on attack, but the Galaxy has Eduardo Hurtado.Hurtado was one of two forwards named to the All-Pro Team.
Hurtado is so powerful it takes more than one man to contain him, and he will be the biggest concern for United's defense.
Osiander's biggest concern will be finding someone to play in the middle of the defense in place of the suspended Dan Calichman, who has to sit out the game because he
accumulated three yellow cards in the playoffs.
Curt Onalfo appears to be Osiander's best choice to replace Calichman, who has combined with Robin Fraser (one of three All-Pro defenders) to form the backbone of Galaxy's defense all season in front of goalkeeper Jorge Campos.
The Galaxy won two of the three meetings between the teams in the regular season, but both victories came early in the season, when United won only once in its first six games and the Galaxy won its first 12. United has been the best team in the playoffs, raising its level of play with every game in the postseason.
United eliminated the Metro- Stars and Tampa Bay to reach MLS Cup '96, while the Galaxy eliminated San Jose and Kansas City.
NOTES: The bearded and red-haired Alexi Lalas, the most recognized American soccer player, who plays for the New England Revolution, will sing the national anthem. The league announced that the championship trophy would be named the Alan I. Rothenberg Trophy, after the founder and chairman of the league.
MLS Cup '96
Who: D.C. United vs. L.A. Galaxy
When: Today, 3:30 p.m.
Where: Foxboro, Mass.
TV: Chs. 2, 7
Pub Date: 10/20/96