United 2, MetroStars 0
The playoff series was all but wrapped up. The only question was whether D.C. United would finish in style.
Having thwarted every desperate effort by the MetroStars over 80-plus minutes last night at RFK Stadium, United rewarded itself with a pair of late goals by Jaime Moreno and Bryan Namoff to finish off New York/New Jersey, 2-0, and advance to the MLS Eastern Conference championship game for the first time in five years.
United, winner of five straight and seven of eight, will face the winner of the Columbus-New England series, which will conclude tonight in Ohio, in a one-game final on Saturday night. If the top-seeded Crew advances, D.C. will play in Columbus. If the Revolution moves on, the conference final would be played in Washington.
No matter where it's played, United will be without two of its most important players, defender Ryan Nelsen and midfielder Dema Kovalenko, who received their second yellow cards of the playoffs last night and must serve one-game suspensions.
"It's going to hurt us, for sure, but we're going to win the next one and then Ryan and Dema are going to be ready for the [league] final," Coach Peter Nowak said.
Beaten 2-0 last week in the opener at Giants Stadium, the MetroStars had to win Game 2 by two goals to force an overtime period in the two-match, total-goals series. They certainly had their chances, but United goalkeeper Nick Rimando made several excellent saves to shut out MLS's highest-scoring team for the second consecutive week.
When it became apparent that the MetroStars had exhausted all of their efforts, United struck. Teenager Freddy Adu, who had just entered as a substitute, darted into the penalty area and crossed sharply to Moreno for a simple finish in the 85th minute to put the series out of reach. Namoff applied the finishing touch with his first goal in four years by stuffing in the rebound of Kovalenko's free kick, which had hit the crossbar, bounced off sprawling goalkeeper Jonny Walker and nicked the left post.
A crowd of 15,763 celebrated United's fifth straight win over the MetroStars and 11th straight game at home without a loss (8-0-3) dating from mid-May.
However, the suspensions to Kovalenko and Nelsen, perhaps MLS's best defender, tempered United's postgame merriment.
"I'm tired of these calls, they always go against me," said Kovalenko, who received a yellow card in the 41st minute when referee Ricardo Valenzuela ruled that he exaggerated a foul. "I'm very disappointed and I hope the guys step up and get us to the final."
Nelsen, who has anchored a United defense that has yielded four goals in the last eight games, was whistled for a yellow in the 61st minute. "I think I [made] three fouls in two games and I'm suspended for it," he said. "That's the way it is and I know whoever comes in will do a good job."
Brandon Prideaux or Ezra Hendrickson will start in Nelsen's place, and outside defender Mike Petke could move into the middle.
It became clear right away last night that if United (13-10-9) could absorb the MetroStars' pressure, space would be plentiful on the counterattack. United worked its possession game well, keeping the ball from the ball-hungry MetroStars (11-14-7).
The longer the match remained scoreless, the deeper the trouble for the MetroStars, who were dangerous after halftime following a lackluster first half.
Walker made a leaping tip save on Kovalenko's deflected shot from the top of the box in the 37th minute, and Rimando did the same at the other end six minutes later with a diving stop on Sergio Galvan Rey's redirected bid from 25 yards.
Rimando was called on to make three more saves in the second half -- a soaring slap on Eddie Gaven's 20-yarder, a falling stop at the last instant on Cornell Glen's deflected shot and a pickup of Glen's point-blank header.
"You don't want to try and play safe but it's always in the back of your mind and I think we did," Nelsen said. "We tried to play safe -- you don't want to take that extra risk, you don't want to do that extra thing, and that cost us. We knew if we got the first goal, whenever that was going to come, it was going to open up. We battled and battled."
Having weathered the storm, United provided a graceful finish. Adu asserted himself on the left after collecting Josh Gros's pass and found Moreno narrowly onside behind the defense. Later, Kovalenko bent a free kick that took three ricochets before falling to Namoff, a defender with 10 career assists but no goals.
Adu "won the game tonight," Nowak said. "He came in and energized the game. I'm very happy for him."
United Notes: Playmaker Christian Gomez, slowed by an illness all week, left at halftime. . . . United hasn't appeared in the East final since beating Columbus in 1999 en route to its third MLS title.