Carlos Hermosillo is ready. You can see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice.
The Galaxy striker knows that Sunday's Major League Soccer title game against Washington D.C. United might be his last for the team, and he wants to go out the same way he came in--as a champion.
Hermosillo's confidence wavered in midseason, when the goals weren't coming, but three in the last two playoff games have restored his good spirits.
Laughing and joking with the television crews at the Rose Bowl on Monday, Hermosillo said his thoughts were focused on Sunday's game at Foxboro, Mass., not on whether he will be back with the Galaxy next season.
"Anything can happen," he said. "All I want to think about right now is the final. After the game is when the decisions will be made."
If the Galaxy is to defeat two-time champion D.C. United, there will have to be a few decisions made beforehand too. For instance, how to thwart Marco "El Diablo" Etcheverry, the Bolivian playmaker with the profile of a hawk and predatory instincts to match.
Etcheverry has led Washington to the title game in each of the league's four seasons.
In a 4-0 victory over the Columbus Crew on Sunday that clinched the Eastern Conference title for D.C. United, Etcheverry scored one goal and created the other three.
But he can be stopped.
"If you let him stay on the ball and take his position on the field and look up and see where he wants to pass the ball, he does well," Galaxy midfielder Jorge Salcedo said. "But if you put one guy on him right away and another guy comes sprinting in after him, I think he struggles with that pressure."
Galaxy defender Robin Fraser agreed.
"I think the key to playing him is, you reduce the time and space he has," Fraser said. "Certainly, that'll be something we'll be concentrating on."
The Galaxy back line of Fraser, Ezra Hendrickson, Paul Caligiuri and Greg Vanney is the top-ranked defense in MLS, and Kevin Hartman is the league's best goalkeeper. But Washington counters with an explosive offense paced by forwards Roy Lassiter and Jaime Moreno.
Since slumping in the second half of the season, Lassiter has regained his form. He scored two goals against the Crew on Sunday, the second on a superb bicycle kick. Moreno has been D.C. United's most dangerous player this season, edging out even Etcheverry.
"They're a very good team," Galaxy forward Cobi Jones said. "They've been a mainstay [of the league]. They've always made it to the final. They're the favorites, probably. Everybody thinks that they're going to win."
Washington won in 1996, coming from behind to edge the Galaxy, 3-2, in overtime. It also prevailed in 1997, when it defeated the Colorado Rapids, 2-1. In last year's championship game at the Rose Bowl, the Chicago Fire's defense proved too much and D.C. United lost, 2-0.
"They're a solid team," Jones said. "Their players have been to the final. They have that experience. They know what to expect."
The game is likely to be won and lost in midfield. Galaxy defensive midfielder Danny Pena probably will be assigned to shadow Etcheverry, leaving the defenders to cope with the speed of Lassiter, the trickery of Moreno and the determination of Ben Olsen, whose forays down the right wing have given D.C. United an added offensive dimension this season.
The key for the Galaxy will be to deny Washington the ball. In other words, it has to keep possession and keep the offensive pressure on D.C. United.
The teams met twice in the regular season, the Galaxy winning, 2-1, at RFK Stadium and D.C. United winning, 2-0, at the Rose Bowl.
"I think D.C. United and the Galaxy have been the teams over the four years that have been the most consistent," Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid said. "It's a good matchup.
"Obviously, they have great speed up front. So that's an area we have to worry about. Oftentimes when you have great forwards, the key is the service [they get].
"If we take away Etcheverry's space, that'll make things a lot better for us."
It probably will be a physical game. There is little love lost between a team packed with former UCLA players and one studded with former Virginia players.
"There's a lot at stake and both teams know it," said the Galaxy's Vanney, a former Bruin. "They usually come out to play physical, and lately we've realized that when we play physical and go out to defend first and attack second, we're usually a better team."
Like much else in Washington, D.C. United is not what it appears.
"Everyone has this image of D.C. just being this skillful, soccer-playing team," Schmid said. "D.C. is a team that battles, scratches, claws, bites, does everything it can to win.
"I think we have to be aware that we have to match that. I don't know if there are going to be a lot of fouls, but I know there's going to be a lot of competition for the ball.
"Hopefully, we can pin the ears of their defenders back a little bit and make them defend us."
And the bottom line?
"Just win," Hermosillo said. "Just win."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
MLS Title Games
1996 at FOXBORO, MASS.
D.C. United 3, Galaxy 2 (OT)
1997 at WASHINGTON, D.C.
D.C. United 2, Colorado 1
1998 at ROSE BOWL
Chicago 2, D.C. United 0
Sunday, 10:30 a.m.
at Foxboro, Mass.
D.C. United 23-9
Head to Head in '99:
June 19: Galaxy, 2-1
Sept. 25: D.C., 2-0
Significant changes loom in Major League Soccer for the 2000 season, including the possible elimination of shootouts. Grahame L. Jones' column. Page 7