D.C. United's 2-0 victory over the New England Revolution today before 15,132 at Foxboro Stadium seemed like so many of its other performances, complete with an efficient attack, composed defense and cool rhythm.
But what distinguished this otherwise standard midseason match from all others was the cast of characters. With seven starters absent and a part-time starter suspended, United (13-7, 33 standings points) turned to role players and apprentices to silence the Revolution (8-10) and stretch its Major League Soccer Eastern Conference lead to seven points over the Columbus Crew.
"A very gratifying win," Coach Thomas Rongen said. "It shows the strength of D.C. United. We have got tremendous depth, we have some very talented young players and we've got 23 guys who care about each other. . . . They proved something to me and to each other."
United did it without four Americans (Jeff Agoos, Carlos Llamosa, Richie Williams and Ben Olsen) and two Bolivians (Marco Etcheverry and Jaime Moreno) who are playing for their national teams at the Confederations Cup in Mexico. It did it without injured all-star defender Diego Sonora and first overall draft choice Jason Moore, who was serving a one-game penalty for an accumulation of yellow cards.
United won with a four-man defense that had a combined 11 starts before today, two outside midfielders who were acquired just five days ago and a promising rookie in Etcheverry's playmaking role.
All it took was striker Roy Lassiter's MLS-leading 15th goal of the year in the 11th minute and defender Carey Talley's header in the 33rd as United improved to a league-best 8-3 on the road. Goalkeeper Tom Presthus wasn't troubled in the first half, but made four excellent saves when the Revolution took control after halftime to record his fourth shutout.
"It's the same story when I was with this team before," said midfielder John Maessner, who played his first two seasons with United and then returned last week in a trade with the Miami Fusion that also brought rookie midfielder Chris Albright. "No matter who goes on the field, they expect to win. Amazing."
The Revolution wasn't at full strength either, with leading scorer Joe-Max Moore and midfielder John Harkes playing for the U.S. national team and second-leading scorer Giovanni Savarese sidelined with a twisted knee. But New England doesn't have United's depth or an established system of play that transfers smoothly from starters to reserves.
United's lineup had a significant drop in talent, but the fluidity of its play didn't suffer very much. Midfielders held possession, outside defenders protected the flanks and the ball moved consistently -- if not gracefully -- from side to side.
The defense worked effectively, and except for a bad foul by Talley that led to an unsuccessful penalty kick by New England, there were no major breakdowns. Right back Judah Cooks, in his second career start, saved a goal by blocking a shot late in the game, and rookie Antonio Otero distributed the ball as well as could be expected in place of Etcheverry, MLS's premier playmaker.
United went ahead early as Lassiter capped a sound possession with a stinging header from 12 yards for his first goal in a month. Left back Clint Peay, making his first start in 13 months, made the decisive pass with a cross from the left side after collecting Maessner's feed.
The second goal also came on a header in the middle of the penalty area. This time Talley gained inside position on a defender and nodded Otero's corner kick just over New England's Mike Burns, who was stationed at the right post.
In an attempt to awaken his team at halftime, Revolution player-coach Walter Zenga replaced himself with former United goalkeeper Jeff Causey. But New England could not beat Presthus. In the 67th minute, Talley dumped Paul Keegan in the penalty area and Zenga chose young forward Johnny Torres to take the penalty kick; he sent it sailing over the crossbar.
New England had three more decent chances, but Presthus's save, Mario Gori's miskick and Cooks's sliding block on Paul Keegan kept the score intact.
"Everyone knows their role," veteran midfielder Geoff Aunger said. "We're not surprised by these [young] guys. They had an opportunity to show what they can do, and they did it."
GALAXY 2, WIZARDS 1: Clint Mathis and Ezra Hendrickson scored early goals as Los Angeles won at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Alex Bunbury pulled the Wizards within 2-1 with a goal in the 35th minute.
MUTINY 3, RAPIDS 2: In Denver, Tampa Bay goalie Scott Garlick sealed the road win with a save on Chris Martinez in the sixth round of a shootout.