Real Madrid Tie Is a Big Step for D.C. United, MLS

Alecko Eskandarian
D.C. United forward Alecko Eskandarian celebrates his goal in the first half against Real Madrid. (AP)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 11, 2006

SEATTLE, Aug. 10 -- Not long after D.C. United's 1-1 tie with Real Madrid on Wednesday night at sold-out Qwest Field, two disparate views of the exhibition began to surface.

The skeptical stance was that the result meant very little because nothing was at stake and the Spanish superpower was just stretching its legs in the early stages of preseason training. Real had arrived in the United States two days earlier, made nine substitutions -- six more than is permitted in an official game -- and, if not for some faulty finishing, would have won.

The optimistic view was that, by playing with supreme confidence against one of the sport's premier clubs, by scoring a superb tying goal midway through the first half and getting outstanding goalkeeping from Troy Perkins, United had made great strides for itself as well as the 11-year-old MLS.

"We took this game pretty seriously and our attempts to create credibility and a tradition of our own," United President Kevin Payne said. "This is important. We want to beat Real Madrid someday. We don't want to be just a good soccer team; we want to be one of the great teams, and you don't get there by not playing those teams."

It wasn't just the Real Madrid match. Four weeks ago United thrashed another rusty European club, Glasgow Celtic, 4-0, at RFK Stadium, and last weekend near Chicago, eight D.C. players contributed to the MLS all-star team's 1-0 surprise win over English champion Chelsea.

Fitness and organizational issues certainly work in MLS's favor this time of year, but United also displayed incisive individual play and intelligent team work.

"These games are always difficult to gauge because it's their preseason," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "But I'll tell you what: It looked like [Real was] working hard and it didn't seem like a preseason game for them. That was a good sign on our part.

"You take it as a great experience and you can learn from playing against better players -- faster, stronger guys. We have to enjoy this for now and then forget it and get back to the league."

How these results will impact United's MLS campaign remains to be seen. D.C. (13-2-6) has the best record in the league, but with 11 games remaining and a playoff format that leaves little room for error, Coach Peter Nowak said he won't let the club become complacent.

"Our league is the reality and we have to take this experience back and play like we did before in our league," said Nowak, whose team will resume its MLS schedule Wednesday at New York.

Nowak was encouraged by several aspects of the Real match. Striker Alecko Eskandarian scored the equalizer with a one-timed blast from the top of the penalty area -- the last touch of an outstanding possession in which United moved the ball from side to side and tied together several short passes amid pursuing defenders.

Payne noted the work of midfielder Josh Gros, who patrolled the left flank without defensive support and held his own against Real's star right wing, David Beckham.

And then there was Perkins, whose breakthrough season continued with a low save on Ruud van Nistelrooy in the first half, a diving stop on Roberto Carlos's wicked free kick, a deflection of Emerson's shot and a fingertip touch on Cicinho's screamer during second-half injury time. Real's inefficient shooting and Olsen's goal line clearance also played crucial roles in maintaining the tie.

"It is something special," United captain Jaime Moreno said. "We know they are in preseason, but it was a good battle. . . . We wanted to show everyone that we really have good teams in America."

Eskandarian added: "We're representing our league; it's not kicking around in the back yard. It will send some shockwaves around the world."

United Note: The club completed a long-discussed trade with the New York Red Bulls, exchanging the rights to midfielders Dema Kovalenko and Shawn Kuykendall for a future player allocation. Neither player was on United's roster this season.

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