By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 26, 2007
BRIDGEVIEW, Ill., Oct. 25 -- They huddled with the other reserves on the cold, steel bench, sidelined by injuries at the absolute worst time of the season. Luciano Emilio and Jaime Moreno were two of the biggest reasons D.C. United was MLS's best team the last seven months, but when the club's playoff opener against the Chicago Fire kicked off Thursday night, both forwards were mere spectators.
They eventually entered in the second half, but by then United had conceded Chris Rolfe's goal, the only strike during the Fire's 1-0 victory before 17,834 at chilly Toyota Park.
The result was, by no means, crippling to United, but it does mean that the four-time champions will need to win the finale of the two-game, total-goals series next Thursday at RFK Stadium. If the series is tied on goals after Game 2, overtime and possibly penalty kicks would decide the winner.
"They took care of their home field and now we have the chance to take care of ours," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "Would I have liked a tie or win? Absolutely. But the situation is not panic time and we have to go ahead and take care of our home."
With the victory, the Fire continued its remarkable run of postseason success against United. Starting with an MLS Cup upset in 1998, Chicago has built a 5-0-1 record against D.C. and has not permitted a goal.
After Rolfe scored in the 14th minute, United absorbed pressure the rest of the half and, upon Moreno's entrance at the start of the second half, turned the match in its favor. D.C.'s possession game finally materialized but quality chances rarely did, and Fire goalkeeper Matt Pickens was not seriously tested.
United was steamed that a penalty kick was not awarded early in the second half on Christian Gomez's free kick driven into the defensive wall and blocked by a Fire player's arms, but Chicago's early goal, the absence of Moreno (foot-ankle) and Emilio (ankle) at the start, and the club's inability to break down the Fire within 25 yards was its undoing.
United Coach Tom Soehn was encouraged by the second half play and said of the Fire, "In our building, it's going to be even harder for them."
Soehn also figures to have his ailing forwards back in the starting lineup. Moreno, MLS's career scoring leader, was decent in 45 minutes of work and Emilio, who had a league-high 20 goals this year, made it through the final 12 minutes unscathed.
"A little more treatment, a little more training, I think I will be 100 percent," Emilio said.
Added Soehn: "We knew we couldn't run them too long, but I knew I could get something out of them. . . . The important thing is they came out healthy, so it's a positive."
United's problems began right away. Without Moreno, the club could not hold the ball effectively. Without Emilio, there was no menacing presence around the net. The Fire, meantime, found channels in United's defense, culminating in Rolfe's 17-yard rocket that Troy Perkins pushed over the crossbar in the eighth minute.
Six minutes later, Rolfe found the target. On a long ball out of Chicago's end, United defender Greg Vanney failed to cleanly win a challenge 30 yards out, allowing Rolfe to run onto the bouncing ball at the top of the box and power a 14-yard shot past Perkins.
"In hindsight, I misjudged where Rolfe was, which would have changed my decision and I just would have headed it out," Vanney said. "It was a bad decision at that moment."
Rolfe's shot "was rising and he hit it with a lot of power," Perkins said.
The Fire was eager for more, knowing a one-goal margin heading into the second leg would be precarious. Four minutes after Rolfe's strike, Cuauhtemoc Blanco took aim for the far corner and forced Perkins into a reaction save.
When the second half began, Moreno was on the field and rookie Guy-Roland Kpene, still searching for his first goal, on the bench. United pressed for the equalizer but also had to guard against conceding another, which would have been devastating in a short series.
Moreno's presence brought a calming effect to United's attack, which was now able to hold the ball and stretch Chicago's defense. Chicago's play disintegrated as the half unfolded, allowing United an abundance of possession. In the 67th minute, Fred's cross into the middle of the box found Gomez, whose header went directly to Pickens.
Emilio finally appeared in the 78th minute, but United continued to labor around the penalty area and a chaotic second half that included several heated exchanges came to a close.
"Now you go home and you know what you have to do," Soehn said. "You come into our building and it's not an easy place to play. And we're going to make it really tough on them."