D.C. United's final obstacle to a berth in MLS Cup is a New England team that ended the regular season tied for the worst record in the league, failed to beat United in four meetings and needed goalkeeper Matt Reis's two penalty kick saves last week to advance to tonight's Eastern Conference final at RFK Stadium.
So why is United, which has a five-game winning streak and hasn't lost at home in nearly six months, expressing some unease about the Revolution?
"We see a team similar to ourselves," veteran midfielder Ben Olsen said yesterday. "We didn't have a knockout season either. What we have here are two teams that are really hot at the right times in the year."
No one has been hotter than United, which has won seven of its last eight and vanquished the New York/New Jersey MetroStars with a pair of 2-0 shutouts in their first-round series. A victory tonight would send the club to the championship game, scheduled for next Sunday at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., for the first time in five years -- a remarkable recovery after four straight losing seasons.
"Everyone is excited," rookie coach Peter Nowak said. "We know it's going to be difficult."
The Revolution, a conference finalist for the third straight year, didn't secure one of the eight playoff spots in the 10-team league until the final weekend of the regular season. It defeated Chicago in Foxboro, Mass., to get even with the Fire for the final berth in the East, with New England winning the tiebreaker.
If the Revolution had been in the West, it would've missed the postseason by five points in the standings.
In the playoffs, facing a top-seeded Columbus squad with a league-record 18-game unbeaten streak, the Revolution won 1-0 at home on a goal by former American University defender Avery John and then relied on Reis's saves to secure a 1-1 tie in Ohio and complete the series upset.
"I have a lot of confidence in this team," Reis told reporters after the game in Columbus.
"We talked about it -- once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. Like in hockey, you try and ride a hot goalkeeper and go as far you can.
"Right now, I'm feeling pretty good about our chances . . . We've matched up against [United] very well and there's no reason we can't win that game. We just have to battle and we could easily be back in Los Angeles for a suntan and the final."
New England (9-13-10) won't have to worry about two of United's most reliable players, defender Ryan Nelsen and midfielder Dema Kovalenko. Both are serving one-game suspensions for accumulating yellow cards.
While Kovalenko's absence means less disruptions to the Revolution attack, the gap left by Nelsen could open more opportunities for high-scoring forwards Taylor Twellman (University of Maryland) and Pat Noonan.
Ezra Hendrickson will likely start in Nelsen's place, although it's unclear whether he or Mike Petke will play in the middle of the three-man defensive formation.
"They do a lot of service from the right side [Steve Ralston] into Twellman, so if we can cut that down, we should be fine," Hendrickson said.
"The ones we don't get to, we've got to know where their forwards are at all times, particularly Twellman because he's very elusive in the box . . . I've played against him a lot so I know his patterns."
United (13-10-9) will also have to concentrate on playmaker Jose Cancela and dynamic rookie Clint Dempsey, who accelerates well with the ball and is dangerous in the penalty area.
"They're playing an exciting brand of soccer right now, but so are we," Olsen said. "It should make for a very exciting game."
The one true advantage United hopes to exploit is playing at home, where the club has enjoyed an 8-0-3 record since a 4-2 loss to Los Angeles in mid-May. New England is 2-7-7 on the road, including a 2-2 tie and 1-0 loss at RFK.
"I'm so happy for the fans here because I know what they've been through the last couple years," Olsen added.
"We felt it, too, as players that we didn't have a legitimate shot. Even when we did make the playoffs [last year] it wasn't a great team. Now, I see the hope and I feel the excitement [the fans] have. It's good to have them screaming again."
United Notes: The club is 12-1 at home in MLS playoff history, the only loss coming last year to Chicago. United's last appearance in the East final came in 1999, when it defeated Columbus in a three-game series.