United 3, Real 1
D.C. United is scoring goals at a remarkable pace, the latest uprising Wednesday night during a 3-1 victory over free-falling Real Salt Lake before 14,306 at chilly Rice-Eccles Stadium. But what is sure to frighten potential MLS playoff foes is the manner in which the defending champions are doing it.
After Bobby Boswell's routine goal in the first half, United stretched the lead with a pair of breathtaking strikes two minutes apart -- the first on a remarkable individual effort by Freddy Adu, the second on an elegant build-up and classy finish by Christian Gomez.
Five minutes had passed in the second half when the 16-year-old Adu lifted the ball over Brian Dunseth 40 yards from the net and spun around the befuddled defender to regain possession. He tore away from another Real player, flashed past flailing Nelson Akwari and then beat goalkeeper D.J. Countess to the far corner for his fourth goal of the year and ninth of his career.
"I was facing sideways and I saw the defender out of the side of my eye and just lifted it over," Adu said. "I saw daylight and went right at them."
Two minutes later, Adu launched another attack, spraying a pass wide to Jamil Walker charging down the right side. Gomez made a run through the heart of the Real defense and met Walker's cross in stride for a one-timer from 12 yards.
With that, United (16-9-5) locked up its fourth consecutive victory and fifth in the last six games, closing within two points of first-place New England (16-7-7) in the Eastern Conference with two regular season matches left. D.C. has scored 16 times in those six outings and, with the exception of a scoreless effort at Colorado, its possession game and one-touch passing have looked as sharp as they have since last year's late-season run.
Andy Williams converted a penalty kick in the 79th minute for expansion Real (5-21-4), which has lost 10 straight to move within two of the league record.
With United playing the second of three games during an eight-day stretch, Coach Peter Nowak made four significant changes to his starting lineup.
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando was replaced by Troy Perkins, who was rewarded with his first start in league play since April. Boswell, who had played every minute of his rookie season until being replaced by Argentine Facundo Erpen, made his first appearance in a month.
John Wilson, relegated to mostly reserve duty the last couple months, returned to left back and gave Brandon Prideaux a break. And rookie Clyde Simms, replacing Ben Olsen, made his first start in defensive midfield since late August.
Despite its dreadful record and two-month losing streak, Real was troublesome in the early moments. "I wasn't happy at the halftime with our mentality," Nowak said. "We were too careless with the ball and we were doing a lot of running without the ball."
Nonetheless, United took the lead in the 29th minute. Gomez drove a free kick from near the sideline toward the 6-foot-2 Boswell, who, with his back to the target, rose and flicked it just enough to beat Countess to the far corner for his third goal of the year. Gomez improved his team-best assists total to nine.
United thought it had another one late in the half, but an offside call negated Adu's exquisite pass through the Real defense to Josh Gros. Nowak made some adjustments at the break, inserting Walker for leading scorer Jaime Moreno and instructing the wayward Adu to play higher in the attack.
"We didn't create much in the first half because we didn't play forward and Freddy stayed too much as a second playmaker," Nowak said. "We need him to be up top so he can use his speed and ability to go at people. . . . Great finish -- he kept his composure and made sure he put it in."
Adu, who had served as the playmaker in the suspended Gomez's absence during a 4-1 victory over the MetroStars on Saturday, acknowledged his positioning error, saying that Nowak "didn't want me that deep. He said he needed me up top to get some offense."
With Adu in better position, it didn't take long for the rout to unfold.