WASHINGTON -- Bruce Arena flew in from California for the occasion, and he choked up as he spoke. Team president Kevin Payne also fought tears. The star of the day himself cried enough to require a small pile of napkins to wipe his cheeks.
MLS said goodbye to one of its greatest players Thursday. Seven-time All-Star Marco Etcheverry is leaving D.C. United after eight seasons.
"I've had very few difficult moments in my life," Etcheverry said. "This is one of them right now."
Tributes came from MLS commissioner Don Garber and U.S. national team coach Arena for an athlete Payne described as "the most important player in the history of Major League Soccer." Etcheverry was the creative force for United's three MLS titles - including two under Arena - and was the last remaining player from United's inaugural season in 1996.
Etcheverry's contract expired at the end of last season, and salary cap limitations mean United can no longer afford a 33-year-old midfielder who can't cover the field the way he used to. Etcheverry will probably play another year or two abroad, beginning with a tournament appearance for the Bolivar club in his native Bolivia.
"Sometimes you reach the point where maybe it's better to part ways," Payne said. "You'd love for him to play forever. It just doesn't work that way. The younger players need an opportunity to step into the key role."
United will have a new look this year, with first-year coach Peter Nowak and 14-year-old Freddy Adu joining the team.
Etcheverry helped lead United to MLS Cup titles in 1996, 1997 and 1999. He was league MVP in 1998, MLS Cup MVP in 1996 and All-Star game MVP in 2002.
His 101 assists rank third in MLS history. He is United's career leader in assists, games (191), starts (180), minutes (16,305) and game-winning assists (25). He had six goals and seven assists in 2003.
Etcheverry shared two hugs with Arena, who recalled thinking that Etcheverry wasn't fit enough to play a full 90 minutes during the team's first season.
"He said, 'I will show you that I'm a 90-minute player.' He showed that, put the team on his back and carried us to the championship," Arena said.