By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008
COLUMBUS, Ohio, Oct. 26 -- In the end, the breathtaking goal that shattered D.C. United's MLS season Sunday evening at gusty Crew Stadium was immaterial. Sure, it provided the margin of victory for Columbus, a 1-0 decision before 19,591 spectators who came to celebrate the Crew's league-best record and usher it into the playoffs.
But truth be told, United lost the match and missed the postseason for the first time in six years because Bryan Namoff's header clanked off the left post and Luciano Emilio's curling shot struck almost the same spot.
D.C. had to put the season to rest because MLS career scoring leader Jaime Moreno squandered a sure opportunity, because Iván Guerrero's low offering was slapped away by a fully extended goalkeeper and because Thabiso Khumalo's bid from a mere six yards crashed into the crossbar.
A tie would not have done United any good, and with each agonizing miss during a scoreless game, its hopes faded into the central Ohio dusk. Crew midfielder Brad Evans provided the goal, stabbing a 30-yard shot that, unlike United's tries, kissed off that same left post in the north end of the stadium and fell into the net.
"I don't know what else we could have done," United Coach Tom Soehn said, lamenting a loss that allowed arch nemesis New York (10-11-9, 39 points) to maintain its precarious lead over United (11-15-4, 37) and claim the final wild-card berth.
"We tried everything," Moreno said. "There are no words to explain the sadness and disappointment."
The gloom could also describe the entire eight-month campaign, which will conclude Wednesday night with a CONCACAF Champions League match against Marathon of Honduras at RFK Stadium. After boasting MLS's best record the previous two years and revamping its roster last winter for domestic and international success, United finished sixth in the Eastern Conference, just two points ahead of last-place Toronto, and managed to win just one of four tournaments.
It went 2-11-2 and scored only 11 goals on the road and accumulated the most regular season losses since an 8-16-2 mark in 2001.
"We didn't miss the playoffs because we lost this game," United President Kevin Payne said. "We left plenty of points on the table the last six weeks and early in the season. I hope we learned some lessons."
Payne said the evaluation process began a month ago and that discussions about roster and coaching changes with General Manager Dave Kasper and the investment group will continue into the winter. "For us, for our organization, it is just unacceptable, so we have to fix it," he said. However, "I don't think any of us wants to start over again. We think it's a pretty good group."
With 90 minutes to salvage the regular season, United showed its quality by dictating play against the carefree Crew (17-7-6) and generating an abundance of opportunities. It began in the 13th minute when Namoff headed Marc Burch's corner kick off the far post and continued a half-hour later when Emilio whistled a 20-yarder fractionally wide.
"I felt it from the very start that today would be our game," United goalkeeper Louis Crayton said.
Just before halftime, though, Emilio drew out Crew goalie Will Hesmer and hooked a shot off the same pole.
"We were getting chances, we were confident and we had the momentum for the majority of the game," Namoff said. "We were expecting a goal. We were a little shocked we didn't get one in the first half."
United sustained the pressure after the break, and when Moreno, who did not start because of a knee injury, entered in the 54th minute, Columbus seemed ready to crack. But six minutes later, the Bolivian forward faltered from 17 yards after being set up by Francis Doe, a miss that prompted Crayton, at the other end of the field, to fall backward in disbelief. "I should have done better with it," Moreno admitted.
Between the 72nd and 77th minutes, United's season essentially died. Emilio, scoreless in league play since Aug. 2, missed high from the top of the penalty area, Hesmer made a diving save on Guerrero and, on a scramble in the box, Khumalo lifted a short shot off the crossbar.
"Just an inch or two here or there," Soehn said, "and it is a different game."
All that remained was Evans's strike from distance and the final 13 minutes of United's regular season.
"We did everything we wanted to do, but nothing would go in," midfielder Santino Quaranta said. "It's tough, but at the end of the day, we just weren't good enough."