Five reasons D.C. will win MLS Cup 2004
Jack Jewsbury and Khari Stephenson -- both came up huge during the 3-0 victory against San Jose in the second game of the Western Conference Semifinals. Getting goals from these players was something that had to be a pleasant surprise for Bob Gansler.
Yet, there's no question that Kansas City is a bit susceptible on both sides of the midfield. Jewsbury and Stephenson combined for only 15 starts and 25 games played in the regular season. Stephenson, a good-looking 23-year-old out of Williams College, didn't even earn a start until two weeks ago against San Jose. They are also in their second and first years in the league, respectively. Comparatively, D.C. United's flank midfielders of Dema Kovalenko and Earnie Stewart are both battle-tested veterans with over a combined 20 years of experience who are known for playing well in pressure-packed games.
While center midfielders Kerry Zavagnin and Diego Gutierrez are both coming off excellent seasons and are truly the hub of the Wizards, they will be tested by a triumvirate of central midfielders -- D.C. employs a 3-5-2 system -- that will most likely be Christian Gomez, Ben Olsen and Brian Carroll.
When San Jose dominated the Wizards in its 2-0 victory in the first game of their playoff series, it was because of their dominance displayed in the midfield. They exposed gaps along the flanks and were able to both get in serves and get corner kicks off deflected crosses. San Jose also stretched out Kansas City's center midfielders by moving the ball around, which is exactly what Gomez and Olsen, mainly, will look to do in this match.
2. Jaime's magic
All PK jokes aside, the 30-year-old striker is in the midst of how own Magical Mystery Tour this season. After he had all been written off from ever being even a starting player in MLS again, Moreno somehow recaptured the form he displayed in the '90s under both Bruce Arena and Thomas Rongen by leading the league in assists (14) and giving United the most unpredictable forward in the league.
He was at it again in the Eastern Conference Finals when he scored his team's second goal with a bending shot from the left side of the 18-yard-box. While many have noted that Revs goalkeeper Matt Reis did a poor job by leaving open the short side of his goal in anticipation of a served ball from Moreno, how many players in the league would have been able to time the play correctly and place the ball as perfectly as Moreno did in the tensest of games? Maybe two or three at the most.
Kansas City's back four was exceptional this season, but they are much stronger up the middle than along the flanks. And that's exactly where Moreno likes to set up shop, particularly on the left side, where right back Alex Zotinca will have to deal with him from the outset of the match.
In a season that saw him put forth an MVP-like performance, it would be apropos for Moreno to come through in a stage that he knows as well as anyone in MLS, having won three rings already.
3. Nelsen and Kovalenko
All one had to do was take one look into the eyes of both Ryan Nelsen and Kovalenko after the Eastern Conference thriller, and you'd have seen the relief and twinkle of excitement that was so apparent in the D.C. United locker room. After missing Saturday's fateful match due to yellow card accumulation, Nelsen and Kovalenko now have a new lease on life, not to mention a little extra rest after a long season.
"Thankfully, they came through to give me another chance to play," said Kovalenko on Saturday night. "We're not done yet. We have a lot more to do. And we'll be ready."
If any two players were ever ready for an MLS Cup Final, it is these two. And it's hard not to expect that they'll be at their best come Sunday. The added jolt of physicality and intensity should act as a huge lift, as well, since Kansas City is never a team that's afraid to knock a few bodies around or make hard tackles.
"It's not going to be pretty," said Kovalenko.
4. Home field at the HDC
What, you think the Wizards will be supported well? No way. Of course, there'll be a good scattering of faithful fans who will have traveled to SoCal from the Show Me State, but the clear edge should go to United. Half of the fans rooting against K.C. will do so because, well, they are K.C. -- the side that knocked their beloved Galaxy out of the playoffs last weekend. The other half supporting United will be there to hopefully see Freddy Adu win his first MLS Cup title in his rookie season.
In some of the cavernous stadiums around the league, having the support of the fans hardly matters. Yet, that's hardly the case at the HDC, as the crowd sit close to the field and is packed in a tight lower bowl that can be deafening when filled to the max, as it should be for this match.
It also warrants mentioning that Kansas City has gone 0-3-2 in its last five road matches, including an abysmal performance in the 2-0 loss at San Jose on October 24.
5. If it goes to penalty kicks ...
United already knows what to do: Have Freddy and Alecko Eskandarian go early in the order ... and remind Moreno to strike the damn ball.
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at email@example.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.