By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 16, 2005
The playoff berth had been locked up early in the month, the second seed and first-round opponent finalized last weekend. All of which meant D.C. United had nothing to play for last night in its regular season finale against the Columbus Crew.
Well, not exactly.
For the club, there was the matter of regaining its rhythm after a disappointing performance last week and prepping for the postseason. For veteran forward Jaime Moreno, there was the issue of the MLS scoring title.
Neither the team nor the player got what they wanted during a 2-2 tie with the last-place Crew before a season-best crowd of 22,463 at RFK Stadium.
Edson Buddle twice provided the lead for the Crew, but Dema Kovalenko and Moreno scored equalizers for United -- Moreno's coming on a penalty kick with about 15 minutes remaining that left him one goal short of New England's Taylor Twellman.
"Sometimes it's tough when you are already in the playoffs and there is nowhere to move up or down to maybe focus as much," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "I think we were guilty of that tonight."
So after two lackluster performances at home, United (16-10-6) will turn its attention to the Chicago Fire (15-13-4) and a two-game first-round series that begins Friday night at Soldier Field. The return match will be Oct. 30 in Washington.
The defending champions went 5-2-1 in the final quarter of the season, but those last two games against struggling opponents lacked the energy, cohesiveness and defensive composure that had made United the most feared team in MLS just a few weeks ago.
Coach Peter Nowak didn't seem concerned.
"The hardest part right now is over. Now we come to the easy part," he said. "I have a pretty good idea who wants to play in the playoffs and who wants to have the ring for the championship."
Asked why he thought the playoffs would be easy, he explained: "You don't have to motivate the players, you don't need to scream and yell from the bench. . . . Only one [team] is going to get it. It's going to be hungry, it's going to be focused. Only that will matter in the next three weeks."
Nowak said all week that, although little was at stake last night, he had no intention of resting his regulars. He stuck by his pledge. Consequently, United dictated play from the start and seemed on the verge of cracking open the match. But the club struggled to break down the Crew's massed defense, and when it did find some space, D.C. didn't do much with the opportunities.
Against the run of play, the Crew (11-16-5) went ahead in the 17th minute off, of all things, a throw-in. Jamal Sutton's long toss floated over defender Facundo Erpen and found Buddle, who nodded a six-yard header over goalkeeper Nick Rimando.
Sutton nearly doubled the lead 11 minutes later when his vicious volley skipped off the crossbar -- another troubling moment for the sluggish home club.
Just before intermission, however, United drew even. Jamil Walker won a header at the top of the box. With his back to the goal, Olsen used a nifty no-look pass to set up Kovalenko for an eight-yard one-timer to the far corner and his fourth strike of the year.
Freddy Adu entered at halftime to invigorate the attack, but sloppy play on another dead-ball situation put United in another hole. This time the problem was on a corner kick -- Simon Elliott's serve, Chad Marshall's flick and Buddle's easy finish after beating Brandon Prideaux at the back post.
United continued to stumble and would have fallen two goals down if not for Rimando's reflex save on Chris Henderson's lashing effort in the 65th minute.
However, Lucio Filomeno helped even the game again, drawing a penalty kick six minutes into his debut. Bryan Namoff lifted the ball into box for the awaiting Argentine, who was knocked down from behind by Sutton. Moreno buried the kick for his 16th goal, one behind Twellman, who scored his 17th last night. "We're a little disappointed," Moreno said. "We've got to do better, we know that, because in the playoffs, we're going to get punished."