The MLS Cup trophy was carried out to midfield, the mayor made a rousing speech and the championship banner was unveiled -- all the makings of a grand celebration at RFK Stadium last night.
But D.C. United and the 19,052 spectators on hand were hardly in a celebratory mood by the end of the evening as the Chicago Fire rallied early in the second half to earn a 1-1 tie and spoil United's regular season home opener.
Chicago Fire midfielder Kelly Gray, left, draws the foul as he trips up D.C. United forward Jaime Moreno, center, as Fire defender C.J. Brown, right, pressures during the game at RFK Stadium on Saturday.
(Toni L. Sandys - The Washington Post)
Veteran defender Mike Petke had given United (1-0-1) the lead late in the first half by tucking away Christian Gomez's free kick at the back post, but the Fire (0-1-1) got even on rookie forward Chris Rolfe's goal in the 50th minute.
United was fortunate not to lose. It didn't play well at the start of either half and failed to take advantage of Chicago's goalkeeping switch at halftime, when veteran Zach Thornton left with a strained muscle in his side and was replaced by Matt Pickens, who made his MLS debut. Alecko Eskandarian, United's usually reliable striker, faltered on two point-blank chances, and his teammates let other opportunities go unfulfilled.
"This game was about setting the tone early," United Coach Peter Nowak said, "and we didn't do a good job. . . . I'm not happy and I know the players aren't happy."
United's glum start was a surprise considering the emotional buildup. District Mayor Anthony A. Williams participated in a pregame ceremony in which the championship trophy was displayed, a highlight video was shown and the banner was undraped behind the south goal next to the team's three other title flags.
But all the good cheer didn't last long for United, which started uncharacteristically sluggish and didn't find its rhythm until 10 minutes had passed.
"We came out with the right energy and put them on their heels early," Fire Coach Dave Sarachan said. "A fair result in my mind and a good game for us."
After absorbing the Fire's early pressure, United went ahead in the 40th minute. Gomez delivered a free kick from 30 yards out on the left toward the far post. The ball sailed past everyone in the penalty area to Petke, who muscled his way into position and was able to poke the ball past Thornton as his momentum was taking him toward the end line. "Easiest goal I've ever scored," Petke said.
However, the Fire started the second half the same way it started the game, by finding ample opportunities against flat-footed United. Goalkeeper Nick Rimando thwarted Andy Herron's breakaway in the 48th minute, but two minutes later he couldn't stop Rolfe, who collected Ivan Guerrero's pass and cruised in alone before slotting a low shot into the left corner to tie it.
"If it wasn't offside, it was totally my fault," Petke said. "I was screaming at two guys on my team to get on an open player in the middle and, the next thing I know, the ball is behind me. I kind of took my eye off the play to get [his teammates] in order. When I turned around, the ball wasn't even at [Rolfe] yet, he was so far ahead of us that he's Carl Lewis or he was offside.
"I don't know, I'd have to see the replay, but it seemed like offside. . . . It never should've happened in the first place."
Jaime Moreno nearly restored United's lead in the 60th minute, but his 18-yarder hit the crossbar. A fading Gomez was replaced two minutes later by Freddy Adu, who brought some energy into central midfield but not the coveted goal. Both teams failed to put away opportunities deep in the box in the closing 12 minutes, and a night that began with so much excitement fizzled at the end.
"We did well the whole game," Rimando said. "We pressured them, we had our chances and that's what happens when we don't put ours away -- they're going to come back down and get theirs and they put theirs away."
United Notes: Starting defenders Bryan Namoff (back strain) and Brandon Prideaux (flu) were not in uniform again. . . . United will travel to Mexico City for the second leg of the Champions' Cup semifinals against Pumas on Wednesday and then head straight to Columbus, Ohio, for Friday's regular season match against the Crew.