United win tempered by caution(s)
A jubilant, black-clad crowd watched hometown heroes D.C. United sweep aside their Atlantic Cup rivals MetroStars for the fifth consecutive time Saturday night, earning a trip to the Eastern Conference Final with a 2-0 victory that sealed their two-leg semifinal series 4-0 on aggregate.
The win seals United's first playoff triumph since their 1999 MLS Cup championship and stretches their blazing run of form to five consecutive victories, with an undefeated home record since May.
But the victory was significantly blemished by a rash of yellow cards from referee Ricardo Valenzuela, including cautions to Dema Kovalenko and Ryan Nelsen that will force those key contributors to sit out next week's final.
"I'm extremely disappointed," said United captain Nelsen. "I think I gave away three fouls in two games, and I'm suspended for it. But I know that whoever comes in is going to do a good job."
The New Zealand international, whose defensive leadership has helped inspire his team's late-season run, said that he feels he has received harsh treatment from several referees this season, and his displeasure was only further intensified by Saturday's playoff setting.
"Nine yellow cards? If there's a bit of nastiness, OK, but I can't remember a yellow card that was really nasty -- nobody can," Nelsen said. "Now it's cost me a chance to play in the final -- it's like a broken record, every week the same story."
Valenzuela gave out six yellows in the first half alone and eventually handed out nine altogether.
After last week's 2-0 setback at Giants Stadium, the MetroStars needed at least two tallies, so they knew they had to push the tempo early. Playmaker Amado Guevara, John Wolyniec and Eddie Gaven were the featured firepower, hoping to stretch the D.C. back line and string together some of the fluid moves seen earlier in the season.
But despite the Metros advantage in possession, United's savvy defensive play stifled Guevara and company in the final third, allowing only six shots on goal. D.C. netminder Nick Rimando took care of the rest, making several impressive saves and confidently grabbing cross after cross in the box.
As the Metros pushed forward more aggressively in the second half, they opened up space at the back, and counterattack-happy United eagerly exploited it in the closing moments.
Second-half sub Freddy Adu set Jaime Moreno up for a simple finish at the far post in the 85th minute, then Kovalenko's dazzling free kick clanged off both the crossbar and Metros 'keeper Jonny Walker, allowing defender Bryan Namoff an easy tap-in just before the final whistle.
Metros teenage star Gaven was a forlorn figure in the subdued visitors' locker room.
"I think everyone on our team put out a really good effort," he said. "That's just how it goes sometimes. I don't think you're going to win many games if you don't score. I definitely feel like I let the team down some. It's definitely very frustrating right now -- I'll be thinking about this game in the offseason for a while."
Gaven credited the United back line for shackling his side's attack.
"I think they're very well organized on defense," he said. "They have a very good understanding with each other. All their guys get forward very hard, and they also get back very hard. It's tough to deal with that, and that definitely showed tonight -- we weren't able to break them down enough."
MetroStars coach Bob Bradley was obviously let down by the result, especially with his normally high-powered offense shooting a blank for the series.
"One of the problems is inconsistency," he said. "On the one hand, we led the league in scoring, then on the other hand we probably got shut out as much as anyone. We were a little sharper, breaking them down, having some more ideas, and I think in the second half, there were some chances there and we just didn't take them well."
Bradley also praised his opponents' performance, ably coached by his former pupil Peter Nowak.
"They make their breaks because right now I think they're confident, they're playing well, they have a good balance on their team, and that works really well for them. I think they have a really good chance," Bradley said. "Obviously it's dependent on the other game tomorrow, it'll be a factor whether they have to play in Columbus or at RFK."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.