D.C. United yesterday rediscovered the grace and artistry that had been absent from its play at the most inopportune times this year. The ball moved without interruption for long stretches, shots had power and purpose and the Columbus Crew's imposing striking tandem caused only minimal mischief. The final score--United 2, Crew 1 in the opening match of Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference finals--was an unfitting indication of D.C.'s authority before 14,529 at RFK Stadium.
"We're playing our best soccer," forward Jaime Moreno said. "We're having a great time now. . . . Today, it was a perfect day."
Despite the domination, the outcome was not secure until the desperate Crew lost possession in United's end with about 25 seconds remaining. If there was one United shortcoming, it was an inability to pad an early lead that Moreno forged in the 15th minute. Midfielder Ben Olsen's 12-yard volley made it 2-0 in the 72nd minute before Crew midfielder Jeff Cunningham stirred some concern for United 10 minutes later with a well-struck goal.
The victory moved United (26-9 overall) within one victory of its fourth consecutive trip to MLS's championship game. The best-of-three series continues Sunday afternoon in Columbus, Ohio, and, if necessary, Game 3 would be played Nov. 13 at RFK. D.C. improved to 11-0 at home in the postseason.
The Crew (21-14) has never won at RFK in the league's four-year history, spanning 12 games, but with a strong attack Columbus felt good about its chances coming into its third straight meeting with United in the conference finals. However, it was never much of a match. United established control with a flawless first 15 minutes and never allowed the Crew to find a rhythm.
"This is our home, and we wanted to take advantage of that," said midfielder John Maessner, who set up Olsen's goal with a pinpoint cross from the left flank--the last of 12 consecutive passes. "We wanted to let them know from the start that they were in for a tough game, and that's what I think they got."
Columbus has strong strikers, excellent flank players and a solid defense, but its lack of creativity in midfield--a problem compounded by the absence of injured Brian Maisonneuve (strained groin muscle)--left it without any vibrancy. None of D.C. goalkeeper Tom Presthus's four saves were difficult as central defenders Eddie Pope and Carey Talley protected the penalty area from Crew forwards Stern John and Brian McBride.
Pope played a crucial role in the first goal, getting position on defender Todd Yeagley and flicking captain Marco Etcheverry's corner kick to the far post for Moreno to tuck easily into the left corner.
The score stayed that way for a long time, thanks in large part to Crew goalkeeper Mark Dougherty. In the 66th minute he made a superb leg save after Etcheverry's pass found Roy Lassiter charging into the penalty area. Two minutes later, Dougherty made a remarkable diving save on Moreno's shot from just a few yards away following Olsen's cross. United finally found the target in the 72nd minute, but not without nearly another gem by Dougherty. Olsen rushed onto Maessner's cross and stung a left-footed volley from 12 yards. A diving Dougherty got his right hand on it, but the ball spun just inside the left post for a 2-0 lead.
Cunningham halved the margin 10 minutes later with a one-timer from about 12 yards, and United survived three dangerous bids from long distance in the final six minutes.
"Same old story--D.C. did what they had to do to win," said Crew Coach Tom Fitzgerald, whose club has lost all five meetings with United this year and 17 of 22 overall. "We can't lose sight of what we did last year" when Columbus won Game 2 at home to force a third game at RFK.
United Notes: MLS Vice President Ivan Gazidis said the league will begin talks to rework Olsen's contract after the season. Olsen, 22, signed a long-term deal with the league last year, but, Gazidis said, MLS "wants to send a message to our [young] players that their performance will be recognized. Ben has earned it." . . . Defender Diego Sonora said his agent, Ruben Morales, is scheduled to speak with United or MLS officials in the next day or two. Sonora's amended contract expires in a few weeks and he has expressed an interest in signing with a Mexican or Argentine club.