By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 6, 2006
There was harsh irony in D.C. United's 1-0 loss to the New England Revolution in the MLS Eastern Conference final yesterday at RFK Stadium: The club that sleep-walked the latter part of its season away played its finest match in months.
United was lively and inventive and displayed a renewed sense of urgency. It applied unrelenting pressure on a retreating opponent and, in an impassioned first half, snapped a wealth of several dangerous shots on target.
But with each save by goalkeeper Matt Reis and every bid that streaked fractionally wide of the net, United's hopes began to fade. When Ben Olsen's two desperate attempts failed during extra time, D.C. and its 19,552 supporters were left silent.
In the end, the difference was Taylor Twellman's outstanding goal in the fourth minute, which sent the Revolution to the MLS Cup for the second consecutive season and third time in five years. New England will face Houston, a 3-1 winner over Colorado yesterday in the Western Conference final, in Sunday's final at Pizza Hut Park in suburban Dallas.
"We all know that we played one of the best games in a very long time," United Coach Peter Nowak said. "The team should be really proud of how we play. It's just not meant to be -- so many chances, creative play, everything was in place, except the goal."
Other than Twellman's 15-yard shot, the Revolution did not have a shot on goal. United, meantime, generated eight quality opportunities before the break and finished with lopsided advantages in overall shots (18-6) and corner kicks (9-1).
"You always think it's coming, or at least you brainwash yourself to think that it's coming," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "To be on the losing end of a performance like that, it's tough to take because we did a great job and the guys should be proud of themselves."
What they were not proud of was Twellman's goal. Revolution right back Jay Heaps launched Pat Noonan down the right flank. Bobby Boswell, United's central defender, slid across to support teammate Facundo Erpen, but Noonan had enough time and space to serve a cross into the middle of the box.
Bryan Namoff could not stop it and Twellman, a former Maryland star who has evolved into one of MLS's most productive forwards, turned and cracked a one-timer beyond goalie Troy Perkins's reach and into the right side of the net.
"I slid over, I covered, but Pat took a touch," Boswell said. "I wanted to push him inside more than to the end line because I knew [Erpen] was coming back, and he just served it up."
Said Perkins of Twellman, "We just lost him."
United had plenty of time to recover and, over the final 86 minutes, did almost everything right.
Christian Gomez tested Reis from 25 yards. Jaime Moreno's one-timer missed the near corner. Boswell's header bounded off the top of the crossbar. Moreno was fractionally wide from 18 yards. Alecko Eskandarian and Josh Gros threatened and Olsen shot meekly at Reis just before halftime. The goalkeeper finished with eight saves.
United also thought it had earned a penalty kick in the 44th minute. But referee Kevin Stott ruled Moreno was taken down just outside the box.
"We probably scored too early," said Revolution Coach Steve Nicol, who was without two of his top players, Clint Dempsey and Steve Ralston, because of injury. "They really put us under pressure."
There was more after the break -- most notably Reis leaping save on Freddy Adu's shot from distance -- but as the half progressed and the pace slowed, New England settled in comfortably and waited to counterattack.
Nowak made his first move in the 65th minute, replacing Adu with Matias Donnet. Asked about it afterward, Nowak explained that "Freddy did a pretty good job in the first half. We just felt like we need to have some spark on the right side."
Adu was clearly disappointed by the decision, holding his head in his hands on the bench.
"It's not a great feeling coming out of the game, but coaches have what they have in mind and you have to respect it and honor it," the teenager said. "The way it ended, watching the game from the bench the last 20 minutes probably was the worst feeling I've ever had in my life."
Was it Adu's final appearance in MLS?
"We'll see," he said. "There are some serious talks going on [with European clubs], so we'll see. I'd like to be back, but my ultimate goal was to go overseas, and if it comes sooner rather than later, I'll take it."
United's comeback hopes were dealt a serious blow in the 81st minute when Gomez, the leading candidate for the MLS most valuable player award, limped off with a leg injury.
D.C.'s play turned desperate and, in extra time, all it could muster was a long free kick by Perkins that Olsen nearly got his head on, and Olsen's stab that bounded wide.
Thus ended a year that included a 14-game unbeaten streak, the best record in the league and a stirring 1-1 exhibition tie with Real Madrid, but, for the second straight fall, a season-ending loss at home.
Nowak's contract expires in December and although team president Kevin Payne said last night that he "unequivocally" wants to re-sign him, Nowak said he will weigh his options and possibly pursue overseas opportunities.
Despite the year's overall success, United is left with the memory of a lackluster end to the regular season and a disappointing postseason.
"Over the past couple months teams have played better than us and we were still able to squeak by with a tie or a win," Perkins said. "It comes around against us today."