D.C. United's reward for enduring Major League Soccer's seven-month regular season--the scores of injuries, the absences because of national team call-ups, the random spells of disinterest--arrives today in the form of home-field advantage against the Columbus Crew in the third and final game of the Eastern Conference finals.
Although several other tangible factors--such as Columbus forward Stern John's scoring touch--probably will determine who advances to MLS Cup next weekend in Foxboro, Mass., there is no denying United's comfort and pleasure in playing a crucial match at venerable RFK Stadium.
Consider: The Crew is winless in 12 all-time visits to Washington; United is 11-0 in the postseason on East Capitol Street; and in MLS's four-year history, the only time a visiting team has won the third game of a playoff series was Kansas City over Dallas in 1996.
Following last weekend's 5-1 loss in Game 2 in Columbus, Ohio, United (26-10) is welcoming any advantage it can get.
"I've got a good feeling," defender Jeff Agoos said. "It's been an anxious week, but we're comfortable at home. We've all been ready to play this game since Monday. The guys are ready to go and to put on a better effort."
United's conference reign never has received such a challenge. D.C. survived a brief scare against Miami during a first-round sweep and won the series opener against Columbus (22-14), but the three-time league finalist was embarrassed by a Columbus squad bursting with confidence on its home field.
Last year the Crew also forced a third game in the conference finals, but United took care of business at home with a 3-0 victory. This year Columbus has the momentum and perhaps a psychological advantage following a nearly flawless performance last weekend.
It also appears that United's defense, which was shredded by John and fellow Caribbean standouts Jeff Cunningham and Andrew Williams, will be better prepared. All-star central defenders Eddie Pope and Carlos Llamosa have recovered from injuries and are scheduled to start together for the first time in the 1999 postseason. Llamosa missed the previous four playoff games with a sprained knee ligament, and Pope left last week's match at halftime because of a mildly sprained ankle.
There are lingering questions, however, about right back Diego Sonora, whose sore calf has not recovered from John's rough tackle in the opening minutes of Game 2. Sonora practiced lightly all week, and Coach Thomas Rongen said he probably won't determine whether to start him until just before kickoff.
If Sonora is not ready, Rongen probably will employ three defenders instead of four and add Geoff Aunger into defensive midfield alongside Richie Williams. That tandem would be counted on to slow the Crew attack, which encountered minimal resistance and found ample space in United's end last weekend.
The key for Columbus was an aggressive, high-pressure approach that seemed to baffle an unprepared United team.
"We've got to match their intensity and match their aggressive nature," Rongen said. "We have to set a tone early in the game. But we've got to be smart about it and we can't deviate from what makes our team so good. If we can break their pressure early and are able to play the ball forward quickly and find our front-runners, I think we'll be in very good shape."
As for the pressure of playing in the final game of a series, Rongen isn't worried about his team's frame of mind.
"We've been in this situation before; it's nothing new," he said. "This team knows how to handle adversity, pressure, whatever you might want to call it. We look forward to this matchup."
United Notes: With several thousand tickets to be picked up at the RFK will-call windows and more seats expected to be sold at the gate, club officials are requesting that fans arrive early to avoid delays getting into the stadium. . . .
Nine Europe-based players and seven from MLS, including scoring champion Jason Kreis of Dallas and former United midfielder Brian Kamler from Miami, were named to the U.S. national team yesterday by Coach Bruce Arena for next Wednesday's friendly at Morocco. . . . United reserves Antonio Otero and Judah Cooks were named to an MLS developmental squad for a five-game tour against Portuguese First Division reserve teams starting Nov. 28. . . . MLS officials say they have surpassed 30,000 tickets sold for the title game at Foxboro.
D.C. United Preview
United Probable Starters: GK -- Tom Presthus; D -- Carlos Llamosa, Eddie Pope, Jeff Agoos; MF -- Richie Williams, Geoff Aunger, John Maessner, Ben Olsen, Marco Etcheverry; F -- Jaime Moreno, Roy Lassiter.
Game: vs. Columbus Crew.
Where: RFK Stadium.
When: 4 p.m.
Crew Probable Starters: GK -- Mark Dougherty; D -- Mike Clark, Todd Yeagley, Mike Lapper; MF -- John DeBrito, Robert Warzycha, Ansil Elcock, Jeff Cunningham, Andy Williams; F -- Stern John, Brian McBride.
The Crew at RFK
Columbus: 0-12 all-time in Washington ( *: playoff game; SO: shootout)
May 15: 5-2Steve Rammel records MLS's first hat trick.
July 28: 2-0D.C. wins without several starters.
July 25: 2-1 (SO)Etcheverry ties game in 88th minute.
July 30: 4-2 Presthus saves late penalty kick.
Oct. 12: 3-2* D.C. takes 3-0 lead in first half.
April 26: 2-1 (SO)Moreno ties it in 89th min.
Sept. 27: 3-2 (SO)D.C. overcomes
Oct. 11: 2-0*Both goals scored in final 22 minutes.
Oct. 21: 3-0*Lassiter scores twice in rout.
June 5: 1-0Only goal scored by Sonora.
Aug. 14: 2-1John's late goal disallowed.
Oct. 31: 2-1*United jumps to 2-0 lead and holds on.