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United Starts Season With a Win, But It's Bittersweet for the Coach

D.C. United 2, Chivas USA 0

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 3, 2005; Page E01

CARSON, Calif., April 2 -- Peter Nowak emerged from D.C. United's locker room after his team's season-opening 2-0 victory over Chivas USA with a solemn look on his face.

He said he was pleased about Josh Gros's goal in the first half and Christian Gomez's clincher with about 14 minutes remaining. He discussed rookie Bobby Boswell's solid debut in central defense, reserve Santino Quaranta's late-game contributions and the team's ability to quiet its expansion opponent most of Saturday afternoon before 18,493 red- and white-clad spectators at Home Depot Center.

Chivas USA goalkeeper Brad Guzan dives, but United's Josh Gros had already put the ball in the net. Brian Carroll and Jaime Moreno assisted on the goal. (Reed Saxon -- AP)

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On this day, however, United's Polish-born coach had more important things on his mind.

"It's a sweet victory, but it's a bittersweet victory because a great person passed away," Nowak said, his left arm wrapped with a black band in memory of Pope John Paul II. "He was Polish and he was very connected during the time I was there."

Nowak, 40, lived and played in Poland until 1990, when his career took off and he headed for Switzerland, Turkey, Germany and eventually to the United States and MLS in 1998. His heart, however, has remained in Poland.

"I found out just before the game," he said, "but I got the reports [Friday] so if something happens, then I was [emotionally] ready."

United's middling performance eased his pain, to some degree. D.C. wasn't sharp offensively, failing to sustain a rhythm and moving the ball a bit slower than usual. But the defense, with Boswell in the middle of a three-man backline in place of departed all-star Ryan Nelsen, held its ground and yielded only a few dangerous opportunities.

United is 11-1-1 in its last 13 games, dating from last year's late-season run that earned the club its fourth MLS title. The streak also includes a pair of Champions' Cup victories last month.

"It wasn't our sharpest day, or my sharpest day, but it's a win and that's the way you need to start," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "We struggled physically but we battled through it. That's what this team does: We weren't on our game but we're pulling out wins, and that's a nice attribute to have."

Gros, a second-year flank player, provided the lead in the 32nd minute, the beneficiary of Jaime Moreno's long run and Brian Carroll's pinpoint cross.

Chivas had just lost midfielder Francisco Gomez with a sprained ankle and, after a short delay, it smacked a free kick deep into United's end. In a flash, the ball was going the other way as Moreno burst into open space and waited for Carroll to overlap on the left. Moreno slipped the ball to Carroll, whose low pass was met at the far post by the hard-charging Gros for a four-yard finish and his second career goal.

"I didn't do any of the work," Gros said. "Brian could've shot it, but they left me wide open and he got it to me, so it wasn't so much me."

United withstood Chivas's spirited play at the start of the second half and extended the lead in the 76th minute. Eight minutes after replacing Steve Guppy, Quaranta accelerated past two defenders from the right and cut across the top of the penalty area. The ball went astray for a moment, allowing Gomez to run onto it and chip it past goalkeeper Brad Guzan.

United goalie Nick Rimando preserved the shutout in the closing moments with a sprawling save on former United forward Thiago Martins.

"The first half wasn't great but we had a great counterattack and we finished very good," Nowak said. "The soccer part wasn't great and I expected a little bit more, but I think in the second half the team did very well, especially in the midfield and the back."

It was not a good day for Chivas, which is being run by the famous Mexican club of the same name. The stadium was only two-thirds full and the team's performance didn't give those fans many reasons to return on a regular basis.

"I'm clearly disappointed, especially since we worked so hard toward this historic day," said Chivas Coach Thomas Rongen, a former United coach and television analyst. "I'm disappointed we couldn't show our fans and our organization more than zero points."

United Notes: Freddy Adu, 15, replaced ineffective Alecko Eskandarian and played the final 16 minutes, making an excellent open-field pass to Moreno to create a scoring opportunity. . . . ESPN picked up the broadcast when ABC switched to coverage of the pope's death. . . . United will host Mexican club Pumas on Wednesday in the first leg of a Champions' Cup semifinal series -- the first soccer game at RFK Stadium with the new baseball modifications.

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