Soccer: The ballad of D.C. United

Chris DeVille, Columbus Alive

On April 13, 1996, Ohio Stadium hosted the first official Columbus Crew game. The opponent: D.C. United.

Columbus annihilated United 4-0, led by two goals from future club legend Brian McBride. The Crew looked to be a budding power in MLS. D.C. looked to be a laughingstock.

That perception didn't last for long.

Within weeks the Crew was buried at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. They dug such a deep hole for themselves that they only eked into the playoffs by winning nine of their last 10 matches - this in a conference where four out of five teams qualified for the postseason.

D.C., meanwhile, went on to win the first MLS Cup on the strength of Eddie Pope's overtime header in the rain, a highlight that was replayed on early MLS telecasts nearly as often as it replays in Pope's dreams.

With that, the roles were set: Columbus the underdog, D.C. the powerhouse. The ensuing seasons bore that out, with United eliminating the Crew from the playoffs in three straight seasons, from 1997-99. Columbus poached a victory here and there, but they didn't win on D.C.'s turf until 2000.

In those days, Crew fans seethed with hatred toward D.C. Before Chicago and Toronto, they were the most passionately detested soccer team to dare trespass inside I-270.

Things have changed quite a bit since then. Most of the Crew's players and a large portion of its supporters don't remember the heightened pulse that kicked in whenever a match with United was coming up.

D.C. no longer dominates MLS nor owns the Crew like they used to. The Crew's all-time record against United has improved to a more respectable 19-23-8. Columbus hoisted an MLS Cup a lot more recently than D.C. In recent years the Crew, not United, has been among the class of MLS.

That trend seemed to be continuing for much of 2011, but Columbus has been crashing lately, and D.C. is climbing. The playoff spot that seemed like a sure thing less than two months ago is now in jeopardy, and one of the teams gunning for it is United.

Conveniently, the Crew will host United this Sunday in their final regular season home game, the last chance to pick up points at home in what is turning out to be a grueling playoff stretch. They would do well to channel some of that anger from the rivalry's early years.

Columbus Crew vs. DC United

Crew Stadium

4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2

1 Black and Gold Blvd., Fairgrounds