Limarzi: First place is the first step
Tony Limarzi provides live match commentary for all D.C. United games in English on WMET. He also contributes a column to dcunited.com, which runs every Monday.
On July 12, 1996, D.C. United had a very important match at RFK Stadium against the first place team in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference - the Tampa Bay Mutiny. At that time, it was unclear how good D.C. United was, but they put together a very solid performance capped off by a goal in the 72nd minute from Marco Etcheverry. The fans at RFK came out in full force, undeterred by a looming hurricane. Over 20,000 spectators braved Big Bertha and watched their team come away with a well-deserved 1-0 win that was a major step on the road to their first MLS Cup Championship.
Eight years later, D.C. United found themselves once again in an important match at RFK Stadium against the top team in the East. United passed the test this past weekend with flying colors in an amazing 6-2 victory over the MetroStars. United knew that first place was on the line and they played their most convincing match in many years. Five different players scored with two additional players adding assists. The game was free-flowing and entertaining from start to finish, and D.C. United may have found the confidence and enthusiasm that they have lacked since their last MLS Cup title in 1999.
Following a recent four-game stretch in which their strikers did not score a single goal, United has scored nine goals, six from their forwards, in the last two matches at RFK. Much of the credit for this success must be attributed to Alecko Eskandarian. Eskandarian has scored five goals in his last three matches and seems to have become D.C. United's most dangerous goal scorer. His confidence appears even higher than his goal total. Eskandarian has done a great job recently, but he is not the kind of player who creates his own goals very often. Like most great goal scorers Eskandarian relies on his teammates to give him the ball in positions to score, and his partner on the front line has done a wonderful job of doing just that.
Jaime Moreno has been far and away the most important player for D.C. United this season. Even though he is not as dominant a player as he once was, what he has lost in his athleticism, he has more than made up for in his understanding of the game. D.C. United is half way through the season and Moreno is playing with the same energy he showed in the season opener. Moreno can still score, but he takes his own chances less frequently and has become more of a setup man.
D.C. United and Eskandarian have both profited from Moreno's unselfishness. In the past three matches, Moreno has collected three assists, all of them on goals scored by Eskandarian. Of Eskandarian's six goals this season, four have been assisted by Moreno. In the first match of the season, Eskandarian and Moreno interacted very well and about two months later they seem to have found their rhythm again. The strikers are the obvious players who contributed most notably in the past few matches, but there is another distributor of the ball integral to United's recent success.
Last season, Dema Kovalenko was D.C. United's Most Valuable Player. He scored a team-high six goals and was the true heart of the squad. This season, he has been out of the limelight a little, but his contributions have been just as important as a year ago.
Kovalenko has done a great job in the midfield for Untied even if the rest of the world hasn't really noticed. Kovalenko played along side his current coach Peter Nowak when the two were in Chicago, and it seems as though Nowak is getting the most out of his old teammate. Last year, Kovalenko finished the season with zero assists, but this year in only half a season he already has five, the second most on the team. Kovalenko has shown himself to be a total team player as he has sacrificed his own chances at goal to create for his teammates.
In spite all of the positives which came from the victory on Saturday, the key for United will be whether or not they can maintain their attractive style of play this weekend in Kansas City.
For D.C. United, the entire team is healthy and players don't have to worry about moving out of position to fill in for absences. Confidence is riding high after pouring in six goals, but the Wizards are also coming off a rout, beating Dallas 5-1, including four goals in the final 18 minutes.
United has always struggled when playing in Arrowhead Stadium with an all-time record of three wins and seven losses. If D.C. United can stay focused, there's no reason why the offense shouldn't be as fluid as it was against the MetroStars. United has put together commanding performances at home in their last two outings - this week it is time for them to show the same dominance on the road.