By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Apr 17, 2017) US Soccer Players – It was 17 years ago that the Los Angeles Galaxy won the CONCACAF Champions’ Cup. It’s also the last time an MLS team lifted the trophy as the best club in the region. Since then, the tournament – rebranded the CONCACAF Champions League in 2008 – has seen 15 winners. The last 11 champions have all hailed from Mexico.
This year’s champion will again come from south of the border. The 2017 final series begins on Tuesday with Pachuca playing Tigres. Both advanced at the expense of MLS teams. Once again, it’s an open question for why MLS can’t win this tournament.
“Looking back, one of the major reasons we won the CONCACAF championship was because the games were after the (MLS) season,” recalled Sasha Victorine, a member of that 2000 Galaxy team that lifted the trophy. “We trained specifically for it and had no other upcoming distractions.”
That year, the tournament was smaller. With only eight teams involved, there was no group stage followed by a knockout tournament stretching over eight months. In 2000, the tournament happened over a period of just five days at two Southern California venues. Victorine, who had completed his rookie year that season and had played for the USA at the Summer Olympics in Sydney, said the team treated the tournament like it would have the MLS playoffs. There were no concerns about juggling regular season games or the US Open Cup.
“When in season, you have to balance player fatigue, upcoming game schedules and too often the dependency comes on the same core 14 to 16 players,” he said.
The Galaxy, coached by Sigi Schmid, had its issues entering the tournament. The team’s Mexican star Luis Hernandez was not available. Center backs Robin Fraser and Danny Califf missed the tournament with injures. Instead, the Galaxy called on Alexi Lalas to fill the void in the back, pairing him with another veteran, Paul Caligiuri. Goalkeeper Kevin Hartman was solid in net, while Schmid had National Team star Cobi Jones to get the attack going with help from midfielders Peter Vagenas and Mauricio Cienfuegos.
The Galaxy found lightening in a bottle. As in any short tournament, the team got hot at the right time. They would need to win three games for the title. The Galaxy overcame Real Espana of Honduras 5-3 on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals following a scoreless draw at Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Stadium. LA advanced via the shootout 4-2 in the semifinals against DC United after the game had ended 1-1 at the iconic Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles.
DC United, coached at the time by current National Team manager Bruce Arena, was the team to beat. DC dominated the still-nascent league. United won the league and Open Cup double in 1996 and went on to build a dynasty by capturing the 1997 and 1999 MLS Cup. They won the 1998 CONCACAF Champions’ Cup and the Copa Interamericana that same year versus Copa Libertadores champion Vasco da Gama of Brazil.
The Galaxy put together a valiant effort against DC United. Hartman came up big in the shootout, saving attempts from Marco Etcheverry and Ben Olsen, to reach the championship game. The victory was the second time LA knocked DC out of the Champions' Cup. They beat DC 1-0 in the semifinals of the 1997 tournament, only to lose to Cruz Azul in the final
The 2000 CONCACAF Champions’ Cup final, also played at the Memorial Coliseum, on January 19 saw the Galaxy defeat CD Olimpia of Honduras 3-2. The winning goal came from Ezra Hendrickson in the 78th minute following a give-and-go with Cienfuegos.
“It was a great championship for us because it was our first trophy,” Hendrickson said. “We had been to the (MLS and CONCACAF Champions’ Cup) finals a couple times but never won. So that really solidified us as a team and we were able to go on to become a strong team for the next few years in the league and region.”
The trophy would serve as a springboard for the Galaxy’s future success.
“I am not sure you could put a team like that together in today’s dynamics,” said Victorine. “It’s not a bad thing currently, but just different. The fact that over the course of a few years, this player group won the 2000 CONCACAF Cup, won the 2001 US Open Cup, was a finalist in the 2001 MLS Cup, and won the 2002 MLS Cup. What I remember the most was that this team did not have just one or to stars, but instead had a group who knew how to win and created opportunities for individuals to excel.”
However, the biggest regret for the members of that Galaxy roster remains the inability to have played in the FIFA Club World Cup. That tournament was only in its second year, replacing the Intercontinental Cup (a meeting between the European and South American champions dating back to 1960).
In 2001, the year the Galaxy qualified, the tournament’s second edition was abruptly scrapped following the collapse of ISL, FIFA’s marketing partner, after it had accumulated $300 million in debt. Spain would've hosted the Club World Cup that summer. FIFA waited late to cancel. The Galaxy already knew their opponents, drawn into a group with Real Madrid, Jubilo Iwata of Japan, and Ghana's Hearts of Oak.
“We wanted the opportunity to play against the worlds best clubs and players to see where we compared,” said Victorine. “We were heavily motivated by the opportunity to compete against the best teams around the world.”
Hendrickson agreed, saying he wished he would’ve gotten the opportunity to face Real Madrid.
“The main regret for me was not getting the opportunity to play versus Roberto Carlos. We had the group draw already so we new we were in the same group as Real Madrid,” he said. “I think looking back at it now coming up against the likes of Zidane would’ve provided great memories.”
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2014. Find him on Twitter:http://twitter.com/ClementeLisi.
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