D.C. United Beats Chicago Fire, 2-1, to Take Over First Place

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 14, 2009

D.C. United's lead -- and bid for first place in MLS's Eastern Conference -- hung in the balance early in the second half last night at RFK Stadium. United's Josh Wicks, an unheralded goalkeeper entering the season, shifted on the goal line as Brian McBride, one of American soccer's most prolific scorers the past decade, prepared to take a penalty kick.

Considering the conversion rate of such situations and the characters involved, there was barely a doubt that the Chicago Fire would draw even.

McBride chose the lower left corner. But so did Wicks, who was in prime position to block the attempt, one of several exquisite saves during United's 2-1 victory before 18,369 spectators.

"Before he even stepped up, I chose a side to go," said Wicks, who continued to solidify his hold on the starting job after winning a three-man battle in the first part of the season. "I try not to second-guess myself because that's when I freeze up. I wanted to hold my ground as long as possible so I didn't give it away."

In remaining unbeaten at home and handing the Fire its first road loss, United (5-2-7, 22 points) overtook Chicago (5-3-6, 21 points) for the conference's top slot. Jaime Moreno's penalty kick, the result of a widely criticized call by referee Baldomero Toledo, put D.C. ahead before Marco Pappa tied it with a sensational strike. Then, just before halftime, United retook the lead on Christian Gómez's sparkling free kick.

Despite the absence of three important figures -- Fire defender Bakary Soumare (suspension), United striker Luciano Emilio (suspension) and Chicago's Cuauhtémoc Blanco (recovering from Mexican team duty) -- the teams provided an entrancing evening of soccer. There were two superb goals, fierce challenges, quality scoring chances and outstanding goalkeeping.

The first moment of intrigue came midway through the opening half when United received a gift from Toledo. Chris Pontius ran down a ball in the penalty area and one-timed an angled shot before goalkeeper Jon Busch arrived. As Busch and Pontius collided, the ball bounced wide of the far post, ending United's threat. But Toledo awarded a penalty kick, even though the contact came well after Pontius's attempt.

Afterward, even United players were scratching their heads about the decision.

Said Busch: "If I had smashed the guy and he still has the ball, it's a penalty kick -- absolutely. The thing that is upsetting to me is that I tried to have a conversation with the referee, just to explain it to me. And his explanation was, 'Shut your mouth, I am always right, you are wrong.' "

United knows all too well what it's like to be on the wrong end of a controversial play. Three times this season, MLS referees have been publicly criticized by supervisors for decisions made against United. Club officials have tried to take the high road, saying they hoped the calls would even out over the course of the season. On this night, one went their way.

Moreno converted the penalty kick for his league-high 127th career goal in regular season play.

Chicago struck back in the 33rd minute when Tim Ward crossed to Pappa, who sidestepped Marc Burch at the top of the penalty area and placed a 17-yard shot between a diving Wicks and the left post.

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