If it weren't for a pair of incidents, one at the start of each half yesterday, D.C. United's 3-0 victory over the Dallas Burn at RFK Stadium might have been the feel-good game of the season for the struggling club.
After all, Alecko Eskandarian returned from an ankle injury to score two goals, teenager Freddy Adu scored the clincher in the closing minutes, Jaime Moreno contributed three assists and United's defense was barely troubled by the toothless Burn. The victory ended a four-game winless streak and lifted United (7-9-9) into third place in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference with five matches remaining.
"I just hope it's not going to be one week," Coach Peter Nowak said. "We put the effort together, we put the fight together. . . . It's the first step in the right direction and we cannot stop."
However, the match got off to a nasty start and was later marred by a controversial red card to Burn midfielder Oscar Pareja that left Dallas (9-11-5) short-handed for almost the entire second half.
In the first minute, United midfielder Dema Kovalenko tackled Ronnie O'Brien along the sideline. It wasn't the worst confrontation of Kovalenko's checkered career and, under normal circumstances, it probably would have been quickly forgotten. But Kovalenko and O'Brien have an ignominious history, and things quickly unraveled.
O'Brien, whose leg was broken by a Kovalenko tackle last season, began pointing and shouting at Kovalenko. Players gathered. Kovalenko appeared to thrust his chest and head toward O'Brien. United defender Mike Petke shoved Pareja into the unsuspecting Eskandarian, who was left dazed for several minutes.
"It's just one of those plays, he trips me up, I'm not going to take it anymore and it just boils," O'Brien said.
Said Kovalenko: "I just made a tackle and everyone went crazy. People make a big deal out of it because it's him. I play like that sometimes, I need a little emotion, and I'm going to get in one or two good tackles. It's good for me. . . . We just put our heads together, no one hit each other and we just started pushing. It's just part of the game and no one really tried to hurt anybody."
The more significant episode, however, was when Pareja was ejected by referee Ricardo Salazar for inadvertently elbowing Ben Olsen.
"I've got a good-sized lump on my head, but there wasn't any malice," Olsen said.
"That's two big decisions and we got on the wrong end of them," said Burn Coach Colin Clarke, who thought Kovalenko should have been penalized for the early incident.
Without Pareja, an already weak Dallas attack was left powerless and desperately reliant on counterattacks and dead-ball situations.
United goalkeeper Nick Rimando, making his first MLS start in almost four months, was enjoying a carefree afternoon until Milton Reyes just missed the far corner after making a graceful run down the left flank in the 76th minute. Rookie Troy Perkins had started the previous 16 matches in net, but Nowak said he wanted to get Rimando some playing time.
The other big lineup change left Adu on the bench after five consecutive starts. He finally entered in the 71st minute for the banged-up Olsen and scored his fourth goal of the year on a left-footed strike under goalkeeper Jeff Cassar.