D.C. United will have a hard time forgetting several disturbing elements of its 5-1 loss to the Columbus Crew on Sunday: Stern John scoring more goals (three) in the second half than United had legitimate scoring chances all day, United's defenders being spun around like wobbling tops, goalkeeper Tom Presthus desperately diving in one direction and then the other.
But perhaps what stood out most during the series-tying rout in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference finals was the way the usually polite Crew battered an unprepared D.C. squad.
"Columbus was very physical, perhaps too physical for the referee to keep up with," defender Jeff Agoos said yesterday. "However, that is a tactic and one that seemed to work for them. I don't think we, as a team, were ready for it, and with little protection from the officials, we were ineffective. We weren't ready to come out and battle, and it showed for 90 minutes."
The result was one of the worst losses in United's four-year history and forced a decisive match in the best-of-three series at 4 p.m. Saturday at RFK Stadium.
Yesterday, several United players were recuperating from injuries received in the nasty match: Defender Eddie Pope, who departed at halftime, has a sprained left ankle; defender Diego Sonora has a swollen calf, the result of John's overeager tackle in the opening minutes; and reserve midfielder Jason Moore has a knee contusion.
Pope probably will not practice today, Coach Thomas Rongen said, but is listed as probable for Saturday's game. Sonora and Moore are day-to-day, while defender Carlos Llamosa, who has yet to make a playoff appearance because of a sprained knee ligament, is questionable.
The Crew's rugged style was uncharacteristic of its behavior during the 32-game regular season, when it finished with the fewest yellow cards (40) and red cards (none) and was seventh in fouls committed (14.8 per game) in the 12-team league. Conversely, United had the most yellows (60) and reds (nine) and averaged the most fouls (15.8). On Sunday the Crew was whistled for 30 fouls and three yellow cards; United 15 fouls and one yellow.
"They destroyed our rhythm in a very physical way," Rongen said. "If you look at the first tackle [of John on Sonora] and there's no yellow given, that leads me to believe it's a free-for-all. The referee didn't lose the game for us, no doubt about it. But it certainly worked into their favor. The battle lines were drawn, anything goes, although that's not the way the game is supposed to be played, I don't think."
After being dominated in a 2-1 series-opening loss, Columbus's strategy was to contest every ball and apply heavy pressure on United's ballhandlers. As for United's complaints about the physical nature, John told the Columbus Dispatch: "D.C. got a taste of their own medicine. All year they're accustomed to beating people, giving cheap shots. We played the way they're accustomed to. They couldn't handle it."
Rongen may consider some lineup changes, but with the uncertainty of the injured players, he must wait to see who is available. One option is inserting Canadian veteran Geoff Aunger, a physical player who was effective alongside--and sometimes in place of--defensive midfielder Richie Williams this year.
Columbus received a boost from Jamaican midfielder Andy Williams, who, despite his craftiness with the ball, received inconsistent playing time from Coach Tom Fitzgerald this year. Asked if Williams's speed caused problems, Rongen said, "He doesn't have good physical speed; he has good speed of thought"--a trait that sparked the Crew's previously dormant attack and helped create numerous scoring chances.
"We just didn't respond well," Rongen said. "We're not going to overanalyze it. It was a little bit of an aberration. The stage is set for us to redeem ourselves."