The date and time of D.C. United's opening game in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference finals against the Columbus Crew seemed all but set: 1 p.m. Sunday at RFK Stadium.
But concerned that his club would not be able to draw a large crowd at that time and on that day, United President and General Manager Kevin Payne pleaded yesterday with Major League Soccer officials to come up with an alternative. Talks lasted all day and dragged into the evening, and finally, at about 7:30 p.m., they stopped for the night.
"We're still discussing all of our options with the league and various television partners," team spokesman Rick Lawes said. "I'm confident we will announce the exact date and time tomorrow."
Payne's concern about a 1 p.m. Sunday kickoff was that many fans would not come because they play in youth and amateur league games at that time. Others, he said, might choose to stay at home and watch on Univision, a Spanish-language television network scheduled to show the match, and more may not show because the Redskins-Bears game would be televised at the same time.
In a recent interview, Payne said that he wanted the game to be played Saturday evening. A Sunday afternoon game, he said, would draw at least 5,000 fewer fans.
In its first-round series against Miami, United played at home on a Saturday night (with television coverage) and drew an above-average crowd of 18,011.
The league's main concern appears to be its contract with Univision, which, according to an MLS spokesman, requires a certain number of playoff games to be offered to the network. Univision shows MLS games at 1 p.m. on Sundays. The other conference final, Los Angeles against Dallas or Chicago, couldn't fill that slot because it would have to start at 10 a.m. Pacific time.
"It's typical D.C. shenanigans," an official from another MLS team said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We're not surprised this is happening."
Although Game 1 was not set, Game 2 was--1 p.m. on Nov. 7 at Columbus Crew Stadium, with coverage on Univision. Game 3, if necessary, would be Nov. 13 or 14 at RFK.
Maximizing attendance has become more important to MLS after embarrassing turnouts for the two first-round games played on Sunday.
The Miami Fusion drew 8,446 for its game against United at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.--a figure just below its regular season average. At Mile High Stadium in Denver, only 6,542 showed up for the Colorado-Los Angeles match. The league average during the regular season was 14,282, but only about 12,100 after eight playoff games.
While Payne and the league worked on the playoff schedule, United's players received a day off after eliminating the Fusion in a first-round sweep Sunday.
Despite the victory, it was one of United's most unartistic performances in recent memory and could have very easily resulted in a Miami victory, requiring a Game 3 Wednesday.
"They took us for a good ride," forward Roy Lassiter said. "We were lucky to get out of that game and go into a shootout, and just thank God we had the legs to put the ball away."
Even the shootout wasn't a breeze. United's A.J. Wood missed a penalty kick, which was awarded during the tiebreaker after he was tripped by goalkeeper Jeff Cassar. The Fusion could have won it in the fifth round, but Nelson Vargas couldn't beat D.C. goalie Tom Presthus.
United will play Game 1 against Columbus without defensive midfielder Richie Williams, who received a red card (and one-game suspension) Sunday. His likely replacement is Canadian veteran Geoff Aunger. Columbus probably won't have midfielder Ansil Elcock, who has been out with a leg injury.
In the Western Conference finals, Los Angeles awaits the winner of the Dallas-Chicago series, which is even at one game apiece heading into the final match Wednesday night at the Cotton Bowl.