Was that another gust of wind I just heard blowing through the area, or a collective exhale by MLS officials? MLS's championship game next Sunday in California might have held little general interest. It might have been a game between a widely unknown team (Kansas City) and one with a losing record during the regular season (New England). But MLS folks are breathing easier this morning. As fortune in the form of a genuinely remarkable contest would have it, D.C. United covered the league's net last night by winning the Eastern Conference final and ousting the Revolution at RFK Stadium on penalty kicks after a rousing 90 minutes of regulation and 30 minutes of overtime ended 3-3. That means one thing in particular: the 15-year-old Freddy Adu will be playing for the Cup (at least in a reserve role), which in turn means a bump in ticket sales, national media coverage and, yes, TV numbers, however modest they may still be.
MLS's season will end as it began, with talk of Freddy Adu. But as the league's regular patrons know, and a curious portion of the general public will come to find out, young Freddy at the end of his rookie professional season is not the whole of D.C. United, not even close. While his future holds immense possibility, he is, for now, just part of a team, a solid contributor to a group that embodies teamwork. If they didn't play like a team, like their nickname itself, they wouldn't be going for the title against Kansas City next Sunday. You have to give credit to Peter Nowak, who never coached before. An unlikely season began with him ignoring advice to play Freddy more, even pleas of, "Have a heart, Coach, play Freddy just a little bit." What Novak created was a genuine team that just happens to include a potential great.
In his playing days, Nowak, 40, from Poland, played in the German Bundesliga and later was captain of the Chicago Fire for five years. What he has done in Washington is remarkable, and completely unexpected as recently as midseason, even later. United is on a six-game unbeaten streak and heading to the championship game for the first time since 1999, when it completed a run of three titles in four years. There have been lean times since. The last two seasons, United simply didn't respond to the free-and-easy coaching of Ray Hudson. Nowak, detail-oriented and demanding, represented nothing in the way of a coaching transition. He had the whole team make an about-face.
Not all the players were happy in the beginning, but eventually they embraced his strict approach with enthusiasm. Nowak had gotten his way, just as he did in breaking in Adu slowly. Nowak's way has proven most effective during United's stretch run, which reached breakneck speed last night. Anyone who thinks there's little or no action in soccer missed the truth last night. There wasn't any time when there wasn't something happening. The first half was astounding, after that it may have gotten better.
"It was the greatest game I have ever been a part of," defender Mike Petke said.
First, Alecko Eskandarian, a second-year player hardly anyone was mentioning at the beginning of the season, scored a sensational goal, a left-footer from the flank that hit just inside the upper right corner of the Revolution net. A few minutes later, Taylor Twellman leveled matters. Then Jaime Moreno countered to give United a 2-1 lead, only to have Steve Ralston tie the game on a penalty kick that ricocheted off the right post and United goalie Nick Rimando, who played courageously throughout.
This entire game unfolded like one of those infrequent stretches in an NHL game when the teams go back and forth and somehow nothing interrupts the opposing flows. The action pleased the crowd of 21,101. It was reminiscent of when the Redskins played at RFK and the place shook. D.C. United's faithful shook the joint, probably for the last time, because if the team shares the stadium next year with baseball, those sideline stands that have give when fans jump up and down won't be there. That's where left and center field will be for the new Nats.
But baseball was far from anyone's mind last night at RFK. United fans couldn't have had much more fun if they were at the World Cup final. They seemed as loud as any RFK soccer crowd, no matter the size. And for good reason. Both teams played desperately after intermission to break the tie. Play got chippy, to say the least, and stayed that way; in one seven-minute stretch, three yellow cards were raised. But order was restored to the beautiful game, briefly at least, in the form of a big-time, right-to-left crossing pass in the 67th minute by Earnie Stewart. Stunningly, the ball found the head of Christian Gomez. Call it a textbook pass, maybe right out of the Arsenal playbook, or a minor miracle, take your pick. Gomez, running to his left, twisted his body and flicked his head to the right. The ball rocketed six to eight yards into the net, an unstoppable shot; as for degree of difficulty, it might as well have been fired from the other end of the field.
Surely it would have broken the morale of some teams, but not that of New England. Pat Noonan made it 3-3 with a close-range header. Just before the end of regulation, Moreno shot barely wide of the right post after somehow faking two defenders at once; they hit the turf simultaneously. What more could there be? Well, 30 minutes of overtime and chances, good chances, at both ends that made acrobats of Rimando and New England's Matt Reis. And then: penalty kicks. What would you expect now? Not even the traditional five a side were enough, each team making three. But on the sixth pair of kicks, United midfielder Brian Carroll, of Springfield, converted, setting up the last save by Rimando, on the rookie Clint Dempsey.
By the way, one of United's successful kicks was made by Freddy Adu, who entered the game in the 69th minute. You might say he was just doing his part for the team. Then, again, if you care for D.C. United, you might go ahead and cry out, Oh, baby.