Can United counter the Revolution?
D.C. United have won five consecutive matches, and scored seven goals in their last three games. They boast the best home record in MLS and have scored more goals at home than any other team, as RFK Stadium has become a fortress where United haven't lost since May 19.
Jaime Moreno is a league MVP nominee, provider of an MLS-leading 14 assists which have been stylishly dished out to players like Alecko Eskandarian (10-goal scorer) and Freddy Adu (nominee for MLS Rookie of the Year).
But even with all those statistics and honors, the Black-and-Red attack may have its toughest task of the year this Saturday, when they run out against the New England Revolution on Saturday night with a place in the MLS Cup Final at stake.
The Revs, who appear to have adopted an annual habit of bland regular seasons followed by hair-raising playoff runs, have clamped down in the postseason and have practically announced their intentions to bunker against D.C.
"It's up to us early on to try to kill the game a little bit and then get on with our stuff," Revolution head coach Steve Nicol said earlier this week. Nicol has arranged his squad in a 4-5-1 formation that pulls numbers into defense and takes an opportunistic approach to attack, with Taylor Twellman as the lone striker.
Perhaps more importantly, the Revs are riding the coattails of the league's most confident and in-form goalkeeper. Matt Reis saved two penalty kicks against Columbus last Sunday and has allowed four goals in his last five games.
But Eskandarian, reflecting the brimming confidence of his team, doesn't seem fazed by the former UCLA netminder's performances.
"I hope he'd be the first one to admit that they weren't the best PKs in the world," says Eskandarian of Reis's penalty saves last week. "But he's gotten the job done, no question about it. There aren't too many bad 'keepers in this league, but we played Reis three or four times this year, and we've gotten two wins off of him, so it's not like we're scared or anything like that."
Peter Nowak's hot D.C. side has been keyed by Eskandarian's forward partnership with Jaime Moreno, whose possession and playmaking skills spearhead an offense that also includes attacking midfielder Christian Gomez. Supplied by ballwinning midfielders Ben Olsen and Brian Carroll, the trio specialize in snap counterattacks and odd-man rushes that prey on careless defenders.
"I think we're a good partnership," says Eskandarian of Moreno. "When he has the ball and I make a run, I know he's going to get it there. Now, at playoff time, it's a lot tougher than it was during the season, because teams know what we do.
"We're so used to these teams, we've played them four or five times during the year already -- it doesn't come as easy but at the same time I'm pretty confident that if we're on the field together for 90 minutes, we're going to figure it out at least once, and get something out of it."
Gomez, whose playing time was limited by illness last week against the MetroStars, has recovered and should start against New England. The Argentinean scored the game-winning goal in the last meeting between the teams, a 1-0 United victory on Oct. 9, and will likely be the object of close attention from Revs defensive midfielder Shalrie Joseph.
The hard-nosed Grenada international has earned a pit-bull reputation for his ability to harry opposing playmakers relentlessly, as evinced by his shackling of Crew midfielder Simon Elliott in New England's first-round upset. In the opening moments of the first leg at Gillette Stadium, Joseph hacked down Elliott ruthlessly, earning a fourth-minute yellow card and setting the tone for the series. Both Gomez and Moreno might expect to receive similar treatment this weekend.
Saturday's high-stakes situation might dampen the adventurousness of both teams, but there should be no shortage of drama as the Revs have a proven ability to keep it close. New England will hope for an early goal to sit on, while United should be inspired by their raucous fans and cacophonous stadium.
"It helps that we're at home, because when we're at home we feel invincible," said United defender Ezra Hendrickson. "We're in front of our fans. We feel like we have the best fans in the league, and it would be a great gift for them for us to get back to the finals, because I know they'll come out early and in numbers."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.