D.C. United had been brushing aside concerns about its late-season slide by pointing to the postseason for a better indication of its championship value. That moment finally arrived last night, and United was true to its word.
With a well-rounded performance void of only another early goal or two, United began its quest for a fourth consecutive berth in Major League Soccer's title game with a 2-0 victory over the feisty Miami Fusion before 18,011 at RFK Stadium.
Forward Jaime Moreno scored both goals, placing United ahead on a 20-yard strike in the 34th minute and relieving the tension in the 88th minute with a crafty maneuver and shot past goalkeeper Jeff Cassar. D.C. can end the best-of-three Eastern Conference first-round series next Sunday in Game 2 at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"We all felt like we didn't accomplish anything during the regular season," defender Eddie Pope said. "Everyone is hungry. Everyone wants to get back to that championship."
The victory improved United's all-time playoff record at home to 10-0, but did not come without a few scares from the Fusion (13-19 in the regular season). United returned to the stylish and inventive form that had helped produce a club-record 11-game winning streak a while back, led by recharged captain Marco Etcheverry and the dazzling Moreno.
Etcheverry's delicate passing touch returned after a brief hiatus, and Moreno took the coaching staff's advice from last week to look to score more goals.
"If there's one area that [assistant Dave Sarachan] and I stressed with Jaime was you've got to become more goal-dangerous," Coach Thomas Rongen said. "You are too good of a player to just score 10 [goals] a year. I guess he just took that message and ran with it."
On the first goal, Moreno made a sharp cut toward the middle, pushed the ball to Etcheverry, who returned it with a clever touch at the top of the penalty area. After gaining a bit more space, Moreno fired a low shot that skipped into the right corner.
It was a relief for Moreno, who in about a one-minute span earlier had hit the crossbar with a header and the base of the left post with a wicked shot.
"I knew the goal was going to come," said Moreno, who passed teammate Roy Lassiter to become MLS's all-time leader in playoff points with seven goals and seven assists. "I never get frustrated. I always have patience. And I showed I can finally score goals."
Moreno's second goal came on the end of defender Carey Talley's daring run into Miami's end. With the ball pushed to him on the run, Moreno glided into the penalty area, pulled the ball away from pursuing defender Leo Cullen and beat Cassar with a low 12-yarder.
In addition to Moreno's goals, United (24-9 overall) was happy to play well again. The rhythm and desire, largely absent for the last part of the regular season, returned without delay. There was just the simple matter of scoring a goal---something that only occurred in the regular season finale against New England last weekend because of a Revolution own goal.
"This was obviously an important victory for us after two tough weeks," Rongen said. "We played very smart."
Nonetheless, the Fusion had its moments. In the first half, Edwin Gorter's chip sailed a little high and wide left and Welton's clear bid missed the short side. In the second half, with Presthus stranded in the middle of the penalty area, Talley had to clear a shot from the six-yard box and later Fusion striker Eric Wynalda's shot floated agonizingly wide of the right post from 15 yards.
"We knew this was going to be a battle," United midfielder Ben Olsen said. "But we had the energy tonight. We were ready for this."
United Notes: D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams was presented a United jersey and scarf during a pregame ceremony. . . . These teams also met in the first round last year, with United winning in two games. D.C. swept the four-game series during this regular season. . . . The other Eastern Conference series begins today with second-place Columbus hosting third-place Tampa Bay. . . . Talley played well in place of Carlos Llamosa, who is out with a sprained knee ligament.
MLS Conference Semifinals
D.C. United vs. Miami
Game 1: D.C. United 2, Miami 0
Game 2: Oct. 24 at Miami, 1
Game 3*: Oct. 27 at D.C. United, 7:30
Columbus vs. Tampa Bay
Game 1: Today, at Columbus, 3
Game 2: Friday, at Tampa Bay, 7
Game 3*: Oct. 27 at Columbus, 7:30
Los Angeles vs. Colorado
Game 1: Today at Los Angeles, 7:30
Game 2: Friday at Colorado, 9
Game 3*: Oct. 27 at Los Angeles, 10:30
Chicago vs. Dallas
Game 1: Dallas 2, Chicago 1
Game 2: Saturday at Chicago, 4
Game 3*: Oct. 27 at Dallas, TBA