How significant was D.C. United's match with Mexican power Pumas last night at revamped RFK Stadium? Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz, the public-shy owner of United's operating rights, watched the first portion of the Champions' Cup semifinal at field level and MLS Commissioner Don Garber arrived from New York shortly before kickoff.
For United and a nine-year-old league seeking international acceptance, such encounters against eminent opponents are significant occurrences.
United's Mike Petke, left, trips Pumas' Fernando Espinosa in the semifinals of the Champions' Cup at RFK Stadium.
(Toni L. Sandys -- The Washington Post)
United seized the moment, taking the lead on Christian Gomez's early header, but a more seasoned Pumas squad got even on a disputed penalty kick early in the second half to earn a 1-1 tie before a roaring crowd of 21,185. It leaves United in the precarious position of having to win the series finale Wednesday in high-altitude Mexico City in order to reach next month's tournament finals.
In their first appearance at RFK this year, United's players weren't thrilled about the temporary grass covering the dirt baseball infield, which created some rough patches and awkward bounces.
What most irritated them, however, was Canadian referee Mauricio Navarro's call on Jaime Moreno for knocking down Israel Castro on the right side of the box. It led to Brazilian midfielder Ailton da Silva's penalty kick in the 52nd minute.
Said Coach Peter Nowak: "You can just laugh about that. We were supposed to be the winner."
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando called it "one of the worst PK calls ever against me."
Added defender Mike Petke: "I don't know what's more embarrassing -- the dive or that the referee fell for it. I was happy about the referee at the beginning because he let a lot of stuff go, and for him to call that? . . . Only in America. We go down to Mexico next week, you kidding me? They're going to have four penalty kicks."
United's defense, already without Bryan Namoff because of a back injury, was further weakened by the last-minute absence of Brandon Prideaux (flu). Nonetheless, United absorbed constant pressure and remained ahead at halftime, in part because of faulty finishing by Pumas.
United settled down after a rocky start and went ahead in the 10th minute. Moreno beat Joaquin Beltran on the left and took the ball to the end line before serving a perfectly placed cross to Gomez, who slid behind a defender and nodded it in from short distance.
Pumas began to force United to chase the ball all over the field, but in the 43rd minute, D.C. nearly doubled the lead on Moreno's spectacular left-side run and cross, which Brian Carroll volleyed high and wide from a sharp angle.
Pumas maintained its pressure in the second half and got even on da Silva's penalty kick. Rimando went one way, da Silva's shot went the other, triggering celebrations by several thousand Pumas supporters.
"That was really unfair," Moreno said of the foul, "but there's nothing we can do about it."
Pumas continued to dictate play, but United nearly regained the lead in the 62nd minute on Olsen's 22-yard shot that leaping goalie Sergio Bernal knocked away at the upper right corner. David Stokes, Prideaux's replacement, had his deflected bid cleared off the goal line by Gonzalo Pineda in the 76th.
In extra time, substitute Freddy Adu rocketed a 15-yard shot that streaked narrowly wide of the near post, and Pumas couldn't quite finish a dangerous counterattack.
"This was a big opportunity," Petke said. "We put our hearts out there and we couldn't put them away when we had the chance."
MLS Notes: Garber was in Toronto on Tuesday to meet with representatives of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, owner of the NHL Maple Leafs as well as the NBA Raptors, about placing an expansion team there in 2007. "We're making progress," he said. A source close to the situation said that, if Toronto's new stadium proposal is finalized, the deal is "a slam dunk." . . . United (1-0 in league play) will play its MLS home opener Saturday night against Chicago.