D.C. United doesn't need to win tonight to advance to the MLS Eastern Conference final. The club could stumble at home for the first time in 51/2 months, shut down offensively, allow a soft goal and interrupt its nearly perfect autumn by losing to the fading New York/New Jersey MetroStars at RFK Stadium -- and still move on to the next round.
Coach Peter Nowak, however, is approaching the match as if the 2-0 victory in the opener of the two-game, total-goals series a week ago at Giants Stadium never happened.
"Normal approach to the game," he said yesterday. "We know what we're playing for and we know our situation. We're not going to slow down. It's going to be the same pace, the same mentality and the same approach. Nothing will change at all."
United is comforted by the fact that there is some room for error. The MetroStars, who have lost four straight to their arch rival, must win by two goals in regulation to force a 30-minute overtime period and, if necessary, a penalty kick tiebreaker.
If United advances, it would play the winner of the Columbus-New England series, which will be decided tomorrow night in Ohio, in the one-game East final next Saturday night at the home of the higher remaining seed. Columbus and United finished first and second, respectively, during the regular season.
"We can't come in too confident," defender Bryan Namoff said. "We should just treat it like a regular playoff game, like it's a one-game series. Because if we come in thinking we've already got it won, they are dangerous enough in the attack that they can hurt us. If they get one goal, it brings them more confidence, and then anything can happen."
The MetroStars were MLS's highest-scoring team in the regular season, but last week their most dangerous opportunities came on free kicks, not in the run of play. United's disruptive style when the MetroStars took possession limited the number of scoring opportunities and clearly frustrated them. New York/New Jersey Coach Bob Bradley complained afterward about United's tactics, but in the end, his team's inability to improvise doomed its attack.
Tonight, needing to score twice, the MetroStars will probably try to set the early pace and get the ball to Honduran playmaker Amado Guevara in open space.
Nowak and the D.C. players insist they will not divert from their game plan, regardless of what the MetroStars try to do.
"They could play with 10 forwards if they wanted to," said forward Alecko Eskandarian, who scored the crucial second goal last weekend. "We're going to keep playing our game. The system that we've been taught and that Peter has been hammering into our heads all year long has worked for us."
A more forceful attack could backfire against the MetroStars, leaving them exposed in the back.
"I expect they're going to bring a lot more forward and take some more chances," Namoff said. "We need to put out the fire early and then our counterattack will be key against them. . . . Guevara is their engine. If we stop him, I think we'll be fine."
United has won a season-best four straight and six of its last seven, making it the choice of many observers around the league to win the league championship. Its chances of getting past the MetroStars are enhanced by playing at home, where D.C. is 9-2-4 and unbeaten in its last 10 appearances (7-0-3) since a 4-2 loss to Los Angeles in mid-May.
The MetroStars have already lost twice at RFK this year -- 6-2 in July and 3-2 two weeks ago in the regular season finale.
"The first step [to go] in a good direction is always to defend your home, defend your house, and then make sure you're going to have a good performance in [those] home games," Nowak said when asked to explain his team's success in Washington as opposed to its struggles on the road (3-8-5).
United couldn't ask for a better build-up to tonight's match in its comfortable surroundings: a two-goal cushion, no major injury concerns and no yellow- or red-card suspensions.
"We have a lot of confidence, but we don't want to confuse it with overconfidence," forward Jaime Moreno said. "We know it's going to be a battle."