D.C. United captain Marco Etcheverry assessed his club's performance the past couple of weeks with the grace and precision of one of his free kicks.
"After the Champions Cup in Las Vegas, our mentality was going down," he said. "But now we have come back, we've worked very hard and we have demonstrated how we are capable of playing. For us, the game is beautiful again."
Following an artistic victory over the Miami Fusion in its MLS playoff opener last weekend, nothing would be more attractive to United than another eye-catching triumph this afternoon in Game 2 of their best-of-three Eastern Conference semifinal series at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
A sweep always has been United's objective, but now it has become critical following the Columbus Crew's sweep of the Tampa Bay Mutiny in the other Eastern Conference semifinal series. The Crew ended that series Friday night with a 2-0 victory in Tampa and will have eight or nine days to prepare for the best-of-three conference finals. If United loses today, it would play a decisive semifinals Game 3 against the Fusion on Wednesday night at RFK Stadium, then, if it won, return to the field a few days later for Game 1 of the conference finals.
Most factors seem to be working in United's favor today: It is coming off a good performance, it doesn't have any major concerns about the Fusion and it's playing on the road, where it has won seven consecutive games. United hasn't lost away from home since July 4--a shootout loss to the San Jose Clash at Stanford Stadium--and finished with a 13-3 regular season road record.
Despite his team's improved play, United Coach Thomas Rongen said he thinks his players will face a greater challenge today. Therefore, he doesn't care about aesthetics.
"We're going in with a lot of confidence, but we need to play smart football," he said. "We basically just need to find a way to win. If it has got to be ugly, it will be ugly. We just have to be economical and use good tactical discipline."
In Game 1 against the Fusion last week, United's defense was not impenetrable but was good enough to keep the Fusion scoreless. Miami had a few moments on the attack, but forwards Welton and Eric Wynalda missed the goal and attacking midfielder Henry Gutierrez was not in his usual form.
"Miami is always pretty good going forward," United defender Jeff Agoos said, "and I think we did a pretty effective job slowing them down. If we do the same on Sunday, we'll be okay. Every game is different and they may change some things up on us, but we're prepared for their style and their players."
Meanwhile, United's attack was vibrant throughout Game 1 and created several opportunities. While Etcheverry orchestrated, Jaime Moreno continued his impressive season as a creator and a finisher. After hitting the crossbar and left post, he scored two exquisite goals.
"It was a special night for Jaime," said Wynalda, the U.S. national team's all-time leading scorer.
United usually enjoys its visits to Lockhart Stadium. Last year there, it split two regular season games, won a first-round playoff meeting in a shootout and captured the InterAmerican Cup title against Brazil's Vasco da Gama last December. This season, it won both of its regular season matches there against the Fusion, including one that culminated with Etcheverry's goal from midfield.
Notes: CONCACAF, the North/Central American and Caribbean region's governing body, has announced that the U.S national team will play Haiti on Feb. 12 and Peru on Feb. 16 at Miami's Orange Bowl in a Gold Cup first-round group. The other groups consist of Jamaica, Colombia and Honduras; Mexico, Guatemala and Trinidad and Tobago; and Costa Rica, South Korea and Canada. The other sites are San Diego and Los Angeles. . . .
Agoos, an original member of United, will be inducted into the Washington Jewish sports hall of fame on Nov. 20.
D.C. United at Miami Fusion
Where: Lockhart Stadium, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
When: 1 p.m.
Radio: WACA-1540 (Spanish).
D.C. Probable Starters: GK -- Tom Presthus; D -- Diego Sonora, Carey Talley, Eddie Pope, Jeff Agoos; MF -- Richie Williams, John Maessner, Ben Olsen, Marco Etcheverry; F -- Jaime Moreno, Roy Lassiter.
Miami Top Players: F Eric Wynalda, F-Welton, MF-F Henry Gutierrez, MF Edwin Gorter, GK Jeff Cassar.
MLS PLAYOFFS GLANCE
D.C. United vs. Miami
Game 1: D.C. United 2, Miami 0
Game 2: Today at Miami, 1
Game 3*: Wed. at D.C. United, 7:30
Columbus vs. Tampa Bay
Game 1: Columbus 2, Tampa Bay 0
Game 2: Columbus 2, Tampa Bay 0
Crew wins series, 2-0
Los Angeles vs. Colorado
Game 1: Los Angeles 3, Colorado 0
Game 2: Tonight at Colorado, 9
Game 3*: Wed. at Los Angeles, 10:30
Chicago vs. Dallas
Game 1: Dallas 2, Chicago 1
Game 2: Chicago 4, Dallas 0
Game 3: Wed. at Dallas, 8:30