Nobody expected D.C. United to struggle in 1996. With U.S. National Team standout Jeff Agoos and second overall draft pick Eddie Pope anchoring the defense, Bolivian superstar Marco Etcheverry guiding the attack, the best two-way midfielder in U.S. soccer history John Harkes on the wing, and a head coach who had just won four straight NCAA National Championships, United should have immediately been the best team in MLS.
The team lost six of its first seven matches in that inaugural season, and appeared to be heading for disaster. But something changed though midway through that season. D.C. managed to acquire a 22-year-old Bolivian forward who had scored just one goal in 20 appearances for English Premier League club Middlesbrough over the previous two seasons. Jaime Moreno joined D.C. United, and suddenly, the team flourished.
On his way to becoming arguably the best player in MLS history, Moreno was a member of inarguably some of the best teams in MLS history. Like that 1997 squad that won the Supporters’ Shield (for the team with the most regular season points), the MLS Cup and scored the third most goals (70) in the entire history of the league (United’s 1998 team scored 74).
Jaime Moreno is the only MLS player ever to score over 100 goals and over 100 assists, and he’s currently tied with Jeff Cunningham of FC Dallas for the most goals of all-time at 132. Watching highlights of his goals shows how Moreno adapted to the times and to his aging body. Early in his career, speed was his weapon. As he grew older, his biggest strengths became his brilliant touch on the ball and his ability to hold possession in tight spaces.
The individual titles aren’t what make Moreno so great though. It’s the trophies. He’s won 12 of them. That’s what happens when you’re so ingrained in the fabric of the history of the most successful club in MLS.
Just as Moreno was a member of some of the best teams in MLS history, he’s now also been a member of one of the worst. This year’s United team has been shut out 17 times in 29 matches, suffering the most scoreless matches ever in league history. Moreno has been relegated to a reserve role, losing his starting job to newly acquired Pablo Hernandez and scoring just one goal in 20 appearances.
D.C. United has risen and fallen with Jaime Moreno. When he was at his best, United was dominant. Now that he’s on the decline, so too is United.
Moreno is the final connection to those Championship-winning teams of the ‘90s. United plays with the word "Tradition" literally scribed on the backs of their jerseys. As captain, Moreno embodied that tradition. Even late in his career, even when he wasn’t scoring, Moreno was able to change the pace of a match and provide a positive impact just by stepping on the field.
The team will have to move on without Moreno. They’re fortunate to have some building blocks: 17-year-old Andy Najar is a Rookie of the Year candidate, Troy Perkins appears to finally be back to the form that won him the Goalkeeper of the Year award in 2007, and the young central defensive pairing of Julius James and Dejan Jakovic has the potential to be among the best in MLS. But the team has yet to find a forward who can score and create chances with Moreno’s consistency. His leadership and vision may be irreplaceable.
As Jaime Moreno plays his final match at RFK Stadium, he is leaving D.C. United as he found them: struggling and defeated. But with a much fuller trophy case. We’ll pay our tributes on Saturday night knowing that things may never be the same.