When D.C. United opened camp more than nine months ago, snow and ice covered the training grounds around the back side of RFK Stadium. A rookie coach was in charge and a kid barely older than the league itself was the marquee player.
Where was the season headed? It was a mystery to team officials and to United's supporters, who had suffered through four consecutive losing seasons.
"It was the unknown back then -- new coaches, a couple new players," defender Mike Petke recalled Saturday following United's final workout before Sunday's MLS Cup against the Kansas City Wizards at Home Depot Center.
"Was Jaime [Moreno] going to come back from the injuries and produce? Was Peter [Nowak] going to put together a game plan? Was Freddy [Adu] going to be a distraction? Everything just fell into place. I said this a while ago: Only we're going to mess this up, and so far we haven't. We're going to find out tomorrow if it's meant to be."
United (13-10-10) is vying for its first championship since 1999, when it won its third title in four years. Midway through this season, when United was struggling to win more than one match per month, an appearance in the final was the furthest thing from anyone's mind. But the club won five of its last six regular season games, swept the New York/New Jersey MetroStars in the first round of the playoffs and then outlasted the New England Revolution in a penalty kick tiebreaker in the East final last weekend to complete a remarkable late-season uprising.
"I just want to get this show on the road, it's been so long. I wish we could've done it last night, bring some switchblades and get this thing going," joked United midfielder Ben Olsen, one of two remaining players from the 1999 championship squad. "I can't even tell you how long this season has been. To think back to the first game, to the first meeting with Peter, it's just been such a long haul, and it's so nice to finish it like this."
Other than a few minor muscle strains, United is healthy for the final against the Wizards, who are making their first appearance in MLS Cup since 2000. Unlike United, Kansas City (16-10-7) has been a model of consistency from the start of the season in April. Injuries to four key players seemed to end their championship hopes, but the Wizards were able to combine mistake-free, defensive soccer -- a trademark of Coach Bob Gansler -- with a devastating counterattack led by U.S. national team forward Josh Wolff.
Kansas City's speed could pose problems for United's back line, which isn't the swiftest unit in the league. Conversely, the Wizards will have to contend with a D.C. attack that has scored 18 times in the last nine games, sparked by the late-season arrival of Argentine playmaker Christian Gomez.
"You've got so many weapons [on United] to worry about," Wizards defender Nick Garcia said. "For us, it benefited us to play Los Angeles and San Jose in the playoffs because they are a lot like D.C. -- they have guys who can play with the ball and score goals. But with D.C., you have to stay concentrated on the middle of the park because that's where they're going to try to break us down. . . . It's two high-explosive teams that can break out at any time."
While United has enjoyed a carefree week in Southern California, the Wizards have had to deal with a goalkeeping controversy. Veteran Tony Meola has recovered from an Achilles' tendon injury, but his replacement most of the last three months, journeyman Bo Oshoniyi, appears to be the front-runner for the title-game assignment. Gansler declined to identify his starter.
Oshoniyi has played well, but there's no doubt United would rather see him in goal than Meola, a nine-year MLS veteran who almost single-handedly won the championship for the Wizards four years ago with a spellbinding performance against the Chicago Fire at RFK Stadium.
United's lineup will be bolstered by the return of defender Ryan Nelsen and midfielder Dema Kovalenko, who were suspended for the Eastern Conference final. Their availability also increases Nowak's options for substitutes, with last week's starters Josh Gros and Ezra Hendrickson as well as teenager Freddy Adu and veteran Brandon Prideaux available in the second half.
"We had a good week of practice. The guys are ready, they know what to do, but we've still got to find a way to win the game," said Nowak, who won an MLS title as a player with Chicago in 1998. "This is the most important game in probably their careers, a game they will remember forever. There's nothing much to say [to the players] anymore. They've always believed."