Regulation couldn't decide it. Neither could 30 minutes of sudden death overtime or the standard five rounds of penalty kicks.
But in the sixth stage of a tension-filled tiebreaker before 21,101 delirious spectators at RFK Stadium, D.C. United's Brian Carroll scored and New England's Clint Dempsey did not, ending one of the most remarkable matches in MLS's nine-year history.
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who had stuffed Dempsey's attempt to clinch the Eastern Conference title and send United to the final for the first time in five years, danced around the corner of the field pumping his arms before a wave of teammates buried him. Teenager Freddy Adu waved his jersey to the crowd as he ran aimlessly around midfield.
"Goal scorers always get the celebrations," said Rimando, who stopped an earlier attempt and watched another skip off the crossbar. "To get to run and jump around like that, with the crowd going crazy and everyone screaming and us winning, it was a lot of fun."
Rimando's last save secured a 4-3 advantage in the tiebreaker following a 3-3 tie through 120 gripping minutes of full play.
United, which relinquished the lead three times during regulation, will face the Western champion Kansas City Wizards in MLS Cup next Sunday afternoon at Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
"It was a great game for Major League Soccer," rookie coach Peter Nowak said. "We can score another three or four goals, they can score three or four [more] goals, but at the end of the day, it doesn't really matter -- we are in the final."
United (13-10-10) took the lead in the 11th minute on Alecko Eskandarian's goal, but Taylor Twellman tied it for the Revolution (9-13-11) six minutes later. Jaime Moreno restored the lead in the 21st minute, but Steve Ralston answered with a penalty kick just before halftime.
Christian Gomez put United back ahead in the 67th minute on a sensational header, but Pat Noonan got the equalizer with about five minutes left in regulation.
"We came to play," Revolution Coach Steve Nicol said, "and we certainly played."
Overtime was filled with near misses and exhausted players crumbling to the turf with cramps.
In the tiebreaker, United converted four of six opportunities, the last by Carroll to the upper left corner. Dempsey, a favorite for MLS rookie of the year, pushed his shot toward the lower right corner, but Rimando was there to push it aside and extend United's home unbeaten streak to 12 (8-0-4).
"Dempsey set up and he kind of showed where he was going and I got a quick jump," said Rimando, who regained his starting job in September after sitting out for four months because of poor play and more knee problems. "I don't want to give all my secrets away, but his body language right before the shot was pointing in that direction."
Said defender Mike Petke: "Nick deserves this. This was an up-and-down year for a lot of guys, and Nick as well. He hung in there, never made a fuss and got the chance again."
United was an overwhelming favorite to win last night. After all, D.C. had won seven of its previous eight games, had not lost at RFK in nearly six months and had gone 2-0-2 against New England in the season series.
But the Revolution, a first-round upset winner over top-seeded Columbus in the first round, caused fits all evening for United, which was playing without suspended starters Ryan Nelsen and Dema Kovalenko. Ezra Hendrickson struggled with Twellman and Noonan in Nelsen's central defense slot, particularly in the first half, but defensive adjustments to limit New England's space kept the game close.
United's attack provided three spectacular goals, but didn't dominate possession of the ball like it normally does.
Things started well enough when Revolution defender Jay Heaps misplayed the ball 40 yards from the goal, allowing Eskandarian to take possession and roar toward the penalty area. When he reached the top of the box, he stung a rising shot that found a sliver of space between soaring goalkeeper Matt Reis.
But United's evening would soon become a struggle. Marshall Leonard crossed into the box for Twellman, who timed his run behind Hendrickson and volleyed an eight-yard shot past Rimando.
United reclaimed the lead in the 21st minute. New England's players began to pull out of the penalty area after a corner kick. At the top of the box, Earnie Stewart spotted Moreno, who curled an angled shot just inside the left post as Reis watched helplessly along the goal line.
The Revolution kept coming, though, and just before the half, got even when Carroll was called for a handball. Ralston was fortunate to convert the penalty kick as the ball struck the right post and then deflected off the prone Rimando.
United grabbed the lead midway through the second half when Stewart crossed from the right flank. Running and turning at the same time, Gomez headed the ball back across the six-yard box and past Reis.
Once again, however, New England answered. Ralston sent a corner kick to the far side, where the unmarked Noonan, MLS's co-leading scorer, rose above Rimando and nodded the ball into the near corner.
The Revolution carried momentum into overtime and created several opportunities, but United didn't crack.
"This game had everything," Petke said. "It was just incredible to be a part of it."