Tampa Bay Sports Day

Jaime Moreno wraps up extraordinary career Saturday

Jaime Moreno came to DC United from Middlesbrough in England in 1996 fully expecting to return one day to the soccer’s big time. Fifteen years later he is finally leaving.

But he is leaving with an unmatched legacy as perhaps the best player in the history of Major League Soccer and as one of Washington’s most decorated athletes in decades, if not the most decorated.

“It was pretty new, and I just wanted to play,” said Moreno. “I was in England, and I didn’t have a chance to play too many games so I decided to come to this league because I thought, it’s a brand new league, I might have a better chance to play and grow as a person and as a player.

“Always in my mind, it was just stay a couple years, get better and go back to Europe. Obviously, it didn’t happen; definitely, I made a good impression. Every other year, it was signing, and signing longer contracts until I realized it was 15 years later, and I’m still here. That’s how life goes.”

He was just 22-years old when he first caught the eye of then United coach Bruce Arena, making not just one, but two scintillating moves around one of his best defenders and also scoring a goal in the 2nd minute of Bolivia’s 2-0 win against the United States in a U.S. Cup match at RFK Stadium.

“I remember seeing Jaime blow by [former United defender Jeff) Agoos when Bolivia came into town at RFK,” said United assistant coach Mark Simpson, who was the starting goalkeeper for United’s first championship in 1996. “The next thing you know, not even a month later, he was here and making his mark on this team and history and MLS.”

“I do remember. It’s just because Jeff is my friend, and I just don’t want to keep mentioning it over and over,” added a laughing Moreno.

Moreno, 36, despite limited minutes over the last couple of years is still the only player in MLS history to record over 100 goals and 100 assists and is still tied for the league’s all time goal scoring lead (132) with Jeff Cunningham, who caught up with him earlier this month.

He still regrets not returning to England, which is where his wife Louise is from, or some other major European league but in the end he chose responsibility over selfishness and stayed where his overall situation was good.

“I wasn’t good enough,” joked Moreno. “You gotta have good connections and life was good here. My kids were born here, and we just felt comfortable. Later, I kind of fell short in my career, so it was something that I’m always going to regret.

“At the same time, I can’t be ungrateful, because I have a great career, a great family, a good place to live and a lot of friends. I’m pretty blessed. Not everybody has that luxury of staying that many years in one team. I do realize that, and I’m always going to be thankful.”

It’s a rare occurrence in sports where one player stays in one place and has this great an impact on one franchise for so long. Technically, he does not have full “tenure” because as many sometimes forget, he spent the 2003 season in New York. But he is still the symbol of greatness for what this club used to be so it’s no accident that every trophy DC United has won has been with Moreno as a key figure.

“But the league is evolving,” said former teammate and current United coach Ben Olsen. “And it’s tough to tell if this will happen again, a guy like him coming in this league, staying this long and producing as much as he has, and also, holding as much silverware as he has.

‘That’s the thing, to me, we can talk about his goals and his being one of the best players. But to me, this team has only won championships with Jaime. That says a lot.”

Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs comes to mind when Washington Capital’s goaltender Olaf Kolzig and Washington Redskins corner back Darryl Green are the only other local athletes of tenure with only Green’s accolades even coming close to comparing to Moreno’s. Making it even greater is that MLS is now old enough to enjoy a bit of reverence and nostalgia as Moreno, and another great player, Chicago’s Brian McBride, bid farewell.

Green was on two of the Redskins three Super Bowl winning teams, was voted to the Pro Bowl seven times, All Pro four times, was voted onto the NFL’s 1990’s All Decade Team and of course, was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008. His 20-years with the Redskins is tied for most seasons with one NFL team.

Kolzig played 12 full seasons with the Capitals, won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender in
2000 and was the team’s starting goalkeeper in their only Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1998.

As they have come and gone, so have others. Norv Turner was the coach of the Redskins with Gus Frerotte and Heath Shuler as his quarterbacks when Moreno arrived and they have gone through countless more since. The Capitals and Washington Bullets were still playing at the Capital Center.

The Bullets leading scorer was Chris Webber in a lineup that also included Juwan Howard, Calbert Cheaney, Rod Strickland, Gheroghe Muresan and a guy named Ben Wallace deep on the bench, who left to win four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards and a championship with Detroit in 2004…bad personnel decisions seem to follow all of the teams in the city apparently?

If you really break it down, the only Washington stars that really can compare to Moreno’s accomplishments are the Washington Senators Walter “The Big Train” Johnson and more recently, the Capital’s Alexander Ovechkin.

The latter is arguably the best in the world, has won all the individual honors he can win multiple times, is a true mega star but lacks one thing-a championship. Johnson played 21 seasons, all with the Senators from 1907-27, and won 417 games (second all time to Cy Young) with a career 2.17 era and his 110 shutouts are an all time record.

“It’s been kind of fast, actually, when I look back, and where I’m at it’s like, time flies, and I wish I was a little younger so I could still play , but that’s how life is. You gotta move on and see what’s my future.” Moreno said.

But to compare his career to others from another sport, Baltimore Orioles first baseman Eddie Murray and Redskin wider receiver James Arthur Monk, both Hall of Famers, are the best comparisons not necessarily for their statistical production but for their professionalism, standard of excellence and demeanor in this ‘look at me, me, me’, highlight reel seeking world of sports.

Murray garnered the most MVP votes in Major League history without actually winning the award but did what all the great ones do in all sports-he produced when it mattered most, at the critical times of a game or season.

Monk led the league in receptions (940) and also in consecutive games with a reception (183) when he retired in 1995 and was selected to the NFL’s 1980’s All Decade team.

But the one compelling trait of all three of these special players is that they neither enjoyed nor reveled in the spotlight-it was always about production.

Simpson’s fondest memory of Moreno came from that inaugural 1996 MLS Cup match. Lost in the bitter cold conditions and subsequent euphoria of the Eddie Pope game winning goal, was that Moreno drew all three fouls that led to all of United’s goals.

“He’s a very competitive guy, but a lot of those championships, he wanted to win them, but he put his stamp on the game. He’s done it in the games. He’s taken over games in those types of situations,” said Olsen. “There’s been nobody who’s been more valuable at this club, and it’s a sad day to see him go. But these things have to happen eventually, and hopefully, it’s a celebration this weekend and a positive spin on all the great things he’s done for this club.”

Moreno was a 5-time MLS Best XI, 8-time MLS All Star while only leading the league in goal scoring once (1997). But shockingly, he was never voted as the league MVP, despite seeing three of his former teammates win the award along the way-Marco Etcheverry, Christian Gomez, Luciano Emilio-some deserved and some not.

“The true fans understand it but he is not out and about screaming his own name-that’s me,” Olsen said with a chuckle. “If I had Jaime’s talent, I’d be on every commercial in this city. I’d have more Euromotor car commercials.”

“How should he be remembered in this community? Again, he’s been under the radar in the mainstream media in this community, unfortunately,” Olsen continued more seriously. “Now, in the Latin community, I think he’s going to be remembered very fondly, and as the legend he should be.

“But you know how the media is around here – we’re not always front page. He’s never been one to scream his name out loud to people. It’s a credit to him, and I’ve always admired that in him. He did what he did on the field, and he spoke on the field, and it was a beautiful thing.”

His career can be broken down into two segments-pre and post injuries. The 2002 season saw numerous, nagging leg injuries but the most severe were the two herniated discs in his back that nearly forced an early retirement and his trade to New York for Mike Petke and other considerations.

In his first go around, and what most likely attracted the suitors from England, Moreno could run at full speed with the ball, one of the rarest of skills and most difficult to defend. But he was always a savvy decision maker on and off the ball with great vision, which is what carried him through his second act as his legs failed him and the speed diminished.

“He was always a smart player. He didn’t have to be as smart when he had his legs but as he got a little older, the intelligence that he already had was heightened, said Olsen. ““There’s been practices where he’s literally walked through it because he has that sense of soccer that a lot of kids don’t have in this country.

“You think back to guys like [Carlos] Valderrama, and it’s like, how do these guys know there’s someone coming on my back, or how did he know that guy was there? He’s got that sense, and it’s produced magic.”

If he can be criticized for one thing however, even in England to some degree, it is that he often was not in the best of condition upon arriving at training camp which may have contributed to his injuries. “He ate too many fish and chips over there,” joked friend and teammate Santino Quaranta.

In response, he hired a personal trainer back in 2004, who works with many of the Redskins as well, to keep him committed and get his body ready for the interminable MLS season.

His one passion, outside of his family, away from the field is playing golf. He teased the low 80’s several years ago (I was a golf pro in my other life so I kind of know his game!) but gets it around in the low 90’s with the ability to occasionally sneak a round back in the mid-to-high 80’s.

Perhaps his most memorable, or dubious, moment on the golf course was turning the corner and hitting friend, and former United teammate Richie Williams with the cart and cutting him wide open.

All told, Moreno is the symbol of the greatness and what DC United once was but no longer is-an elite team and franchise. Even he could not undo the trail of bad personnel decisions, mediocre talent around him and couldn’t do anything to influence the calamitous stadium situation.

United’s methods and ideas are stale, all based on the past and what used to be for this club and Moreno’s departure may be culmination of this debacle they have created for themselves. Fortunately for Moreno, though he departs at a team low, he will only be remembered for his greatness.