In the final hysterical moments of D.C. United's 3-2 victory over the Kansas City Wizards in MLS Cup on Sunday, Coach Peter Nowak paced the sideline with the intensity of one of his hellish practice sessions. Earnie Stewart was on the bench with his teammates -- "hoping and praying," he said -- that his final appearance with United would end with a championship. Dema Kovalenko was by himself in the locker room, banished by a red card a half-hour earlier, pacing and screaming like a madman.
After six unbearable minutes of extra time, United's five-year title drought came to an emotional end.
"It seemed like an eternity" before referee Michael Kennedy blew the final whistle, goalkeeper Nick Rimando said in a locker room filled with cigar smoke and sprayed champagne. "We knew we were getting close to winning it, but we didn't want to let it slip away."
United's last stand capped a remarkable 21/2 months and sealed its fourth championship in MLS's nine-year history. After meandering through the first two-thirds of the season, United (14-10-10) finished with an 8-1-1 record and roared through the postseason with a finely tuned attack and unshakable defense.
Kansas City (16-11-7) took the lead after only six minutes on Jose Burciaga Jr.'s rasping drive, but United responded with a three-goal burst in a seven-minute span midway through the first half to take control. Second-year striker Alecko Eskandarian tied it in the 19th minute with a 14-yard smash and then provided the lead in the 23rd on a controversial sequence. An own goal by Kansas City's Alex Zotinca three minutes later pushed the lead to 3-1, but Kovalenko's ejection and Josh Wolff's penalty kick early in the second half turned a potential runaway into a tense battle for the final 30-plus minutes.
"Even after the first goal, I never had a doubt that we were going to win this game," Nowak said. "We have our game plan, we stick to our game plan. The boys did a great job. Now we just have to celebrate our moment."
United didn't look as if it was going to celebrate anything after its slow start. Burciaga, a defender with one career goal, stung a 30-yard shot that skipped past Rimando and into the far corner to give the Wizards a startling early lead. Falling behind Kansas City, an impeccable defensive team, usually means trouble, but "we knew we had 85 more minutes to play and, with our attack, we knew it was just a matter of time for us to get back into it and score a goal," said Eskandarian, the game's MVP. "We didn't panic too much; we just stuck together like we've done all year long."
Eskandarian evened the score when he collected Brian Carroll's pass, backed in on defender Nick Garcia at the top of the box and then made a quick turn to the left to free himself for a vicious shot that streaked past goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi.
There was more to come. Eskandarian pressured Jimmy Conrad deep in Kansas City's end, and Conrad's clearing attempt struck the leaping United forward on the right forearm and fell into Eskandarian's path for a clear run on goal. From the top of the box, Eskandarian unleashed a low shot that beat Oshoniyi to the left corner to give United a 2-1 lead.
On the apparent handball, Wizards Coach Bob Gansler said: "It's a miscue on our part. We need to play that better. . . . If the referee doesn't call it, then it's not [an infraction]. You have to applaud D.C.'s opportunism."
Kansas City's defense let down again on United's third goal. Stewart, who will return to the Netherlands to end his career, raced past Conrad on the right side and delivered a hard cross in front of the net. Eskandarian was lurking, but before the ball reached him, Zotinca accidentally redirected it past Oshoniyi.
United's joy ride to the title was almost derailed in the second half, however. D.C. played conservatively after halftime and absorbed the Wizards' pressure, but on a Kansas City corner kick, Kovalenko blocked Conrad's shot while standing on the goal line. The result was a penalty kick for the Wizards and a red card for United's Ukrainian midfielder.
Wolff easily converted, drawing his team within a goal with plenty of time remaining against a short-handed opponent.
"One of the best feelings I've ever had was looking around after Dema got kicked off and seeing everyone's face and everyone saying, 'Okay, who cares? It happened and we know what we have to do,' " United defender Mike Petke said. "Everyone put in the effort. It was ugly at times, but it doesn't matter because we did it."
Despite the man advantage, the Wizards were never able to establish an attacking rhythm. They had a few good chances, including Burciaga's screamer from the left in the 81st minute, but United effectively wasted time and disrupted Kansas City's midfield. Teenager Freddy Adu, who entered for Eskandarian in the 65th minute, was left up front to run at the advancing Wizards.
When the end finally arrived, the players danced and hugged before racing behind the north goal to salute a few hundred United supporters who had made the long journey.
"We came together as a team and we finished the game strong," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "I was a little worried, but we got through it."