COLUMBUS CREW STADIUM
7:30 pm ET (CSN-DC)
A week ago the Columbus Crew became the first team to book passage into the MLS Cup Playoffs - now they are looking to extend their four-point advantage atop the Eastern Conference that would provide home-field advantage throughout the postseason. They entertain a D.C. United which has started to gel at the right time, winning convincingly over the last two weekends in cementing their hold on third place in the East - though now just three points behind the second-place MetroStars.
REFEREE: Jair Marrufo. SAR (bench): George Gansner; JAR (opposite): Jose Corro; 4th: Baldomero Toledo
MLS Career: 24 games; FC/gm: 31.3; Y/gm: 3.3; R: 5; pens: 11
Games involving Crew: P5 W0 L3 T2; FC/gm: 30.0; Y/gm: 4.2; R: 1; pens: 4
Games involving United: P5 W4 L0 T1; FC/gm: 38.8; Y/gm: 4.8; R: 0; pens: 2
INJURY REPORT: COLUMBUS CREW - OUT: DF Stephen Herdsman (L groin strain); GK Matt Jordan (R calf strain) ... D.C. UNITED - OUT: FW Thiago Martins (L knee surgery)
INTERNATIONAL ABSENCES: none
YELLOW PERIL: CLB: Nelson Akwari (20 CP); Frankie Hejduk (20 CP); Chris Wingert (19 CP) ... DC: Alecko Eskandarian (10 CP additional); Josh Gros (18 CP); Mike Petke (18 CP); Ben Olsen (additional 11 CP)
This is the final of the four meetings between the clubs this season. They have played to two draws this year, wrapped around a United victory at home.
In their last meeting on Aug. 21 at Crew Stadium, Columbus conceded a late penalty before sharing the spoils in a 2-2 draw with D.C. United as all four goals came from free kicks.
Alecko Eskandarian gave the visitors the lead in the 35th minute, hammering a free kick through the wall from some 22 yards and leaving Crew 'keeper Jon Busch as it whistled inside his left-hand post.
But the Crew drew level before the break, Duncan Oughton slipping behind the United defense and rising up to nod home Simon Elliott's free kick floated into the area (43). The Crew then took the lead after the interval through a powerfully-taken free kick of their own, Ross Paule ripping a drive from 25 yards that sailed over the wall and past United 'keeper Troy Perkins (54).
Yet United pegged back the Crew - some consolation perhaps for the late equalizer they allowed last weekend to the Revolution - when Dema Kovalenko's chip into the area was adjudged to have been handled by Frankie Hejduk. Jaime Moreno stepped to the spot and sent a blistering shot underneath the crossbar for the leveler.
Here's Greg Andrulis's team (3-5-2): Jon Busch - Nelson Akwari (Danny Szetela 88), Robin Fraser, Chad Marshall - Frankie Hejduk, Simon Elliott, Duncan Oughton, Ross Paule, Chris Wingert - Edson Buddle (Jeff Cunningham 81), Kyle Martino.
Here's Peter Nowak's team (3-4-1-2): Troy Perkins - Bryan Namoff, Ezra Hendrickson (Mike Petke 71), Brandon Prideaux - Earnie Stewart (Christian Gomez 71), Brian Carroll, Dema Kovalenko, Joshua Gros - Freddy Adu - Alecko Eskandarian, Jaime Moreno.
In their second meeting this season on June 19 at RFK Stadium, the Crew's seven-game unbeaten streak was done in by three first-half goals in a 3-1 United victory, Alecko Eskandarian scoring twice (his first since the season opener).
Jaime Moreno tapped in a low cross from Ronald Cerritos after just six minutes, then Eskandarian hit twice in 10 minutes with a pair of marvelous goals. He finished a nifty tic-tac-toe passing sequence in the left side of the area when he hammered home a looping volley from a cheeky lifted ball from Moreno (35), then just before the halftime whistle, hit a world-class freekick from some 19 yards over the wall and inside Jon Busch's left-hand post.
Manny Lagos pulled a goal back just before the final whistle for the visitors, but the Crew still went down to defeat for the first time since April 24.
A late penalty gave the Crew a 1-1 draw at RFK Stadium on May 8. Dema Kovalenko's diving header off a Ben Olsen cross gave United a dream start after just four minutes. But as the clock ticked over 90 minutes, United defender Brandon Prideaux was adjudged to have pulled down Frankie Hejduk and Ross Paule converted from the spot for an equalizer.
A year ago, United won the first of the four meetings between the clubs - then the Crew won two of the final three with one drawn. United won 3-0 at home on June 14 (Petke 43; Eskandarian 79, 85), before Columbus returned the favor at Crew Stadium two weeks later with a 3-0 triumph (West 8, McBride 25, Walsh 60).
The teams played to a 1-1 draw on Oct. 4 in Columbus (Paule 19 - Etcheverry 59 pen), before Columbus won two weeks later at RFK Stadium in dramatic fashion in a last-ditch effort to save their playoff future (Stoitchkov 37, Petke 90 - West 26; McBride 90 pen, 100).
D.C. has won just three times in the last four seasons against the Crew, winning once this year and last, the victory before coming on Aug. 25, 2001. In the first four years of MLS, United won 12 of the 16 league meetings between the two teams (five by shootout), and three times eliminated the Crew from the MLS Cup Playoffs.
Jaime Moreno is United's all-time leader against the Crew with 11 goals, 6 assists. Among active players, Ronald Cerritos is next with 6 goals, 3 assists (none while with United), then Dema Kovalenko (3goals, 3 assists - 1 goal with United), and then Mike Petke (3 goals, 2 while with United) and Alecko Eskandarian (3 goals).
Manny Lagos leads current Crew players with 6 goals, 3 assists v United, but none of those came while with Columbus. Jeff Cunningham is next with 5 goals, 1 assist, while Brian Maisonneuve has 1 goal, 8 assists. The Crew's all-time leader against D.C. is Brian McBride with 11 goals, 5 assists.
Coaches record: Peter Nowak vs. CHI: P3 W1 L0 T2... Greg Andrulis v DC: P13 W6 L3 T4
ALL-TIME (31 meetings): Crew 11 wins (0 shootout), 50 goals ... United 15 wins (5 shootout), 49 goals ... 6 draws
AT COLUMBUS: (15 meetings): Crew 8 wins (0 shootout), 29 goals ... United 4 wins (2 shootout), 17 goals ... 3 draws
The Crew twice came back from one-goal deficits as Edson Buddle hit for all four Columbus goals, becoming the sixth player in MLS history to hit for at least four goals in a game (the eighth time the feat has been achieved).
The home side twice answered MetroStars goals with three minutes. Buddle's first in the ninth minute canceled out a John Wolyniec volley of a poor clearance in the area, the Crew striker running on to a perfectly-weighted ball over the Metro rearguard by Ross Paule to race in alone on goal.
Then after the slightest of flicks from Eddie Gaven turned home an Amado Guevara free kick from the right corner in the 49th minute, Buddle struck again, completely unmarked in the goal area to head home a looped cross from Chris Wingert.
After coming on as a substitute, Jeff Cunningham then played provider for Buddle's final two goals, both with terrific through balls after running at the MetroStars back line. He first slipped through a pass in the 65th minute for Buddle to round Metro'keeper Jonny Walker, then nine minutes later Buddle finished with aplomb after Cunningham's angled pass split the visitors defense.
"You score one, you want to score two; it doesn't always end up that way," Buddle said, of course named MLS Player of the Week for his performance. "Anything in the box I'm trying to put away. It probably doesn't look like that every game. This game was obvious. It worked out my way."
With Frankie Hejduk back from international duty, Crew coach Greg Andrulis made one change to the team that defeated the San Jose Earthquakes away 10 days earlier. Nelson Akwari was the odd man out, Duncan Oughton moving to right back as Hejduk came in as the right-sided wingback.
Here's Andrulis's team (3-5-2): Jon Busch - Duncan Oughton, Robin Fraser, Chad Marshall - Frankie Hejduk, Tony Sanneh, Ross Paule, Simon Elliott, Chris Wingert (David Testo 81) - Kyle Martino (Jeff Cunningham 58), Edson Buddle (Danny Szetela 87)
Once again, Jeff Cunningham came off the bench - he has now gone nine matches since figuring in the starting lineup and hasn't scored since July 3. But after coming on with a little more than a half-hour left, he laid on two sparking passes for Buddle's final two goals.
"Whatever the situation, I'll make the most of it," Cunningham said. "The minutes I've been getting I've been contributing. I haven't got a goal, but I feel like I've made a difference. Hopefully, the coach will see that I get more minutes."
The Crew were the first team to claim a berth in the MLS Cup Playoffs, a year after a highly-touted squad failed to reach the postseason and then after beginning this season with three consecutive losses. "We got the first, which was to clinch a playoff spot. Now we need to look to get first place in our conference. We took a huge step," Paule said.
Said Hejduk: "We said from the beginning that we believed in ourselves, even after three losses. We know we have the players to win a championship. We had to find ourselves a bit. It was almost a totally new team. We kept believing in ourselves. It paid off."
The Columbus Crew became the first team to clinch a berth in the MLS Cup Playoffs and extended their unbeaten streak to 13 games - the second-longest in league history and the longest ever single-season mark - in a 4-2 victory against the MetroStars in a battle of the Eastern Conference's top two teams. The Crew are now on 40 points from 25 matches, four ahead of the MetroStars, trailing the Kansas City Wizards by a point in the race for the MLS Supporters Shield (but with a match in hand).
United scored three goals in the first half as they won consecutive games for the first time all season, overwhelming a Chicago Fire side that is now also fighting for playoff survival.
Christian Gomez scored his first MLS goal, finishing off a wonderful flowing movement with a curling shot over Henry Ring to give United the lead on eight minutes, then Alecko Eskandarian doubled it when he blazed home from a sharp angle from outside the area after a 1-2 on a corner kick (20), the first time in more than two seasons United has scored on a corner.
The lead could have been even bigger, but Ring turned aside a Moreno penalty in the 28th minute, but Moreno still played provider for the third time on the night (and sixth United goal in succession) when he put Ben Olsen through on the left, Olsen's sharply-angled effort after rounding Ring just helped over the line by Fire defender C.J. Brown (40).
The Fire then grabbed a late consolation effort in second-half stoppage time as Andy Williams converted from the spot after Mike Petke was ruled to have handled a strange deflection in a somewhat dubious decision.
For just the second time this season, United head coach Peter Nowak made no changes to his team from the previous match, a 3-0 home victory against the Dallas Burn.
Here's Nowak's team (3-4-1-2): Nick Rimando - Mike Petke, Ryan Nelsen, Bryan Namoff - Joshua Gros (Earnie Stewart 70), Brian Carroll, Ben Olsen, Dema Kovalenko - Christian Gomez (Freddy Adu 71) - Alecko Eskandarian (Brandon Prideaux 88), Jaime Moreno
A week after being named the MLS Player of the Week, Eskandarian's goal was named Sierra Mist Goal of the Week in fan balloting on the league's official website: www.MLSnet.com
"We were almost laughing at each other, even when we screwed up, because we were working hard for each other and having so much fun, we knew it was going to keep getting better," Eskandarian said. "It was one of our best efforts."
The victory against Dallas continued United's good home form, but they haven't been as successful on the road. They have 25 points from 13 matches at RFK Stadium, but their eight points from 13 away matches rank bottom of the league.
D.C. United won back-to-back matches for the first time all season, hitting for three goals for the second consecutive match as they reversed a 3-1 away loss to the Chicago Fire with a similar scoreline at RFK Stadium on Saturday night. United remained in third place in the Eastern Conference with 33 points from 26 matches, four points ahead of fourth-place Chicago, now three points behind the second-place MetroStars.