The first-round playoff matchup between D.C. United and the MetroStars has all the makings of a classic: fierce rivals with aggressive, attacking styles, dedicated fans, fresh memories of a bruising season series, and to top it all off, a first-year coach facing off against his former mentor.
MetroStars coach Bob Bradley coached Peter Nowak and the Chicago Fire to an MLS Cup championship in 1998, with former Polish international Nowak leading the team from his attacking midfielder spot. The two became close friends and still are today, despite being at the center of one of the league's biggest rivalries.
United nicked a 3-2 victory over the Metros last Sunday at RFK Stadium, gaining home-field advantage for the two-leg playoff series and winning the Atlantic Cup with three wins over their Gotham counterparts.
Afterwards Bradley, already an MLS coaching legend before the league reaches its 10th birthday, predicted an exciting postseason clash.
"There's things there for a good series," he said. "Both teams try to close down quickly in the midfield and win that part of the field. Certainly there's an attempt there to pass quickly and play one- and two-touch in those situations. I think they do that pretty well, and it's something that we also work on. Both teams compete very hard, and the battle lines have been drawn." Nowak insists that he places no extra emphasis on beating his former coach.
"No, not at all," he says. "We are all emotional, but we are professionals. I had a great conversation with Bob even before the game last Sunday, and we know it's going to be hard, both of us. But we're still going to be friends, whatever happens on the field.
"I have great respect for Bob, and the work he did with me when I was playing for him. Nothing is going to change, it's only who's going to go a little further, who's going to make another step."
Nowak endured a tumultuous start to his coaching career, as inconsistent results on the field combined with the media circus around Freddy Adu, baseball's impending move to RFK and other distractions.
But his squad has finished the regular season on a strong run with only one loss since the start of September, earning second place in the Eastern Conference and a contract extension for their coach. Nearly everyone around the club has praised Nowak's steady hand and unswerving focus in helping stabilize what was a reeling franchise.
"Since day one, I think he's been consistent as far as the way he's approached us and the game," said second-year striker Alecko Eskandarian. "This year, we went through some ups and downs, but we stayed pretty consistent with our mentality.
"I never had the privilege of playing with Peter, but I'm sure that's the same mentality he had as a player, and he's brought it along as a coach and instilled it in this team. We're basically a mold of his character."
Conversely, Bradley and his players must now recover from three consecutive losses to D.C. in time for Saturday's rematch at Giants Stadium. Foremost in those preparations is a plan to stop United's devastating counterattack, led by strikers Eskandarian and Jaime Moreno and playmaker Christian Gomez.
"One of the things with counters is, you have to have the ability not to give the ball away," says Bradley. "One goal that they scored (last week), it was a set piece for us, and when the ball came loose, Jeff Parke played a square ball that got picked off, and that led to their counter. So we made some bad decisions, and they were good enough to make us pay. A lot of it starts with being better with the ball."
Said defender Eddie Pope: "We just have to learn from our mistakes, look at some tapes and play better defensively as a team. All of their guys are dangerous, because they send so many guys forward from the midfield as well, guys that can score also. I think if you focus on one, then another one can score." Nowak has no real major injury concerns heading into the first leg of the conference semifinals, but there are a few worries with a pair of attacking threats. Freddy Adu suffered a sprained shoulder when he crashed to the turf after being upended by Metros defender Craig Ziadie in the second half of last Sunday's match. Adu landed hard on his neck and shoulder, and despite sitting out practice earlier in the week, is likely to be in uniform on Saturday.
Nowak was upbeat about the phenom's status, even cracking a joke about the injury.
"We don't want to risk anything today," said Nowak early in the week. "He still feels sore. He said he felt a little dizzy before we started practice, but when we put him in the game, he doesn't need to think too much.
Moreno, who this week won honors as the club's People's Choice and Most Valuable Player while also claiming the United scoring championship, has returned from last month's hamstring strain, but the injury is still on his mind.
"I'm feeling fully recovered, but I'm still working on it, trying to get the strength back," he said. "It wasn't a major injury, but sometimes I still have a little bit of fear. I've just got to keep working and strengthening, and I think I'll be all right."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.