What a difference a year makes in D.C.
Throughout the Washington, D.C. area in 2004, the words "return to glory" were on everyone's lips when conversation turned to local sports. While it was the second coming of former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs that prompted the phrase, recent results have D.C. United fans feeling like their team can reclaim its place among the MLS elite.
Saturday's taut 2-0 win against the MetroStars at Giants Stadium was the team's first playoff victory since the MLS Cup championship of 1999, and it gave United a huge advantage in the two-leg series while sending Black-and-Red fans into ecstasy.
After winning three out of the first four championships in MLS history, D.C. fell on hard times in the new millennium, missing out on the postseason from 2000 to 2002 before barely scraping into last year's playoffs with a losing record. The struggles of the regular season were reflected in an uninspired first-round performance against the Chicago Fire, who swept United aside 4-0 on aggregate.
"It was so bad. We not only got beat pretty bad, we didn't even go out with the right fight and the right team mentality," said midfielder Ben Olsen. "It was bad news."
Enter Peter Nowak. The former Fire and Polish national team star left a front-office job with his former team to begin his coaching career in Washington, taking on the considerable task of steadying the reeling franchise and returning it to respectability. By nearly all accounts he's been successful in doing so -- and veterans only have to think back to last year to note the difference.
"It was kind of a bitter pill," said team captain Ryan Nelsen of last year's playoff flop. "It's in the back of my mind, remembering that. But it's a whole different scenario, different coaches, different team. I think this year we're more experienced, and a lot better team."
"I cannot explain how different it is," said striker Alecko Eskandarian, who scored the crucial second goal in New Jersey on Saturday. "Last year it wasn't a team, to be honest with you. It really wasn't. This year, I know that each one of these guys is going to fight for me, just like I'll fight for all of them. It really is a good feeling to have."
Upon arrival, Nowak and his assistants brought a hard-working, no-nonsense attitude that has fostered a team-oriented locker room culture, even with the presence of the most heavily advertised player in U.S. soccer history, 15-year-old phenom Freddy Adu.
"We wanted to implement some stuff for this team, and we felt together that this team needed discipline, structure," said Nowak, "and the team needed to play the game as we're supposed to play -- as professionals."
From preseason forward, Nowak's policies and decisions were scrutinized -- and sometimes aggressively second-guessed -- by the media and others around the game. But after a turbulent beginning, his steady, uncompromising approach has been vindicated by the team's late-season success.
"There were always questions," said Nowak. "Are we doing right? Who is supposed to play? Why is Freddy not playing? Why this lineup? Why this substitution? But we always felt like if you believe in the way you structure this team and organize this team, then sooner or later the work is going to pay off."
Nowak also had to win over a squad whose unity and self-belief had been shaken by years of failure and uncertainty.
"Of course the preseason was long, and it was hard for them," he said. "It was something they never experienced. But from our standpoint, we always had a clear vision of how we're going to work. We had a lot of questions early in the season, and we said, 'Listen, this is how we feel, this is our intuition, this is our nose, and we're going to stick with it.' Sometimes you're right, sometimes you're wrong, but most of the squad knows that we work in an honest way."
Now United stands on the verge of a return to the Eastern Conference Final, needing only to continue their 10-game home unbeaten streak from regular season play at RFK Stadium this Saturday to vanquish the MetroStars -- and the painful memories of yesteryear.
"It's about this year right now," says Olsen. "We feel like this team is different from last year's. (It's) a tighter team, and it has been since preseason. Hopefully we can bring some life back to this club, and some trophies."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.