There is no other phrase in Major League Soccer that conjures up as much emotion as "D.C. United vs. MetroStars." Its status as the League's most intense rivalry was cemented when Raul Diaz Arce's penalty kick in the last minute of Game 3 of the 1996 Eastern Conference Semifinals gave United the series, and the battle has shown no signs of letting up.
The games are rarely pretty, but never lacking for excitement, with red cards and late goals the norm. The proximity between the two clubs means that there is usually a sizeable and vocal contingent of opposing fans in the stadium. I've made that trip many times with the Screaming Eagles, and seeing a victory in the Meadowlands can be the highlight of the year. Here are some of my favorite "MetroMoments" in another edition of The Lightning Round.
August 11, 1999 - D.C. United 4, MetroStars 1:
It was a Wednesday night and only six of us made the trip. The Metros hadn't scored in more than four games and, by kickoff, there couldn't have been more than 4,000 people in the stadium. But nine minutes in, Sasa Curcic, one of the more colorful characters in the league that year, converted a penalty kick to give the Metros a 1-0 lead. With a downpour starting, I started thinking about the Bruce Springsteen concert next door, but Carey Talley tied the game 11 minutes later, and all was well.
In the 34th minute, then-Metros defender Mike Petke was called for a questionable foul. Petke, already on a yellow card, picked up the ball, kissed it, and was sent off. Seven minutes later, Jaime Moreno cleverly backheeled a Marco Etcheverry cross into the net to give United a 2-1 lead. In the second half, goals by Ben Olsen and A.J. Wood put the game out of reach.
May 18, 2002 - United 4, MetroStars 2:
Nine days earlier, the two teams made a trade, with Craig Ziadie and Mark Lisi going to the MetroStars, and Orlando Perez and Petter Villegas coming south. Lisi had a solid rookie season for United in 2001, but he clashed with new coach Ray Hudson and was given the MLS equivalent of being sent to bed without supper.
After the Metros took an early lead through a Rodrigo Faria penalty kick, Marco Etcheverry began to control play from central midfield, and Jaime Moreno tied the game 13 minutes later. Shortly after the hour mark, Lisi scored, then celebrated by kissing the Metros logo on his jersey, an unforgivable sin to us. Four minutes later, Villegas, also looking to prove something to his former teammates, scored to tie the game.
In the second half, United dominated, with Etcheverry and Moreno scoring. This was the last time the two friends would combine like the early days to, as Mike Tyson would say, send an opponent into Bolivian. That it was against the Metros made it all the more special.
September 14, 2002: United 2, MetroStars 1:
United were making a late surge to get into the playoffs, and they needed to win all of their remaining games to have a chance at clinching a spot, while the MetroStars were fading after a strong start. Two days earlier in New Jersey, United beat the Metros when Marco Etcheverry scored the game's only goal on a free kick.
In the sixth minute, Villegas accidentally gave the ball to Faria, who ran in unmarked and scored. But in the 30th minute, Jose Alegria made a challenge on Metros forward Clint Mathis. The volatile Mathis retaliated by stomping on Alegria's back and was thrown out. In first half stoppage time, Villegas made up for his earlier error by finding Bobby Convey alone on the edge of the box. Convey burst in and tied the game with a low, hard shot inside the far post.
After dictating play, United finally took the lead in the 87th minute, when Ali Curtis scored on a breakaway. With seconds remaining, Roy Lassiter, re-acquired by United in midseason, found himself all alone in on goal Howard rushed out of his area, but missed the ball and upended Lassiter. Like Mathis, Howard was shown the red card and the Metros finished the game with nine men. With their two stars suspended for the final game, they lost to New England and failed to make the playoffs. So, although United also fell short in their playoff run, at least they took the Metros down with them.
October 2004 - MetroStars playoff failure
With three victories in three weeks, there were too many great memories to condense into a few paragraphs, so I'll just list those that will last the longest.
Clinching second place through Petke's game-winning goal in the last game of the season gave United home-field advantage for the playoffs. It also provided redemption for his overtime goal against United on April 22, 2000.
Being given a red plastic hat with the words "MetroStars Playoff Fever" upon entering Giants Stadium despite being decked out in United gear.
Nearly 200 members of the Screaming Eagles, Barra Brava and La Norte taking over the mostly empty Giants Stadium for Game 1, and having Earnie Stewart and Alecko Eskandarian score right in front of us.
Stopping along the New Jersey Turnpike after that game only to have the team bus pull up five minutes later.
Seeing RFK Stadium decked out for Game 2 with banners made by the supporters clubs. My favorites were "Welcome N.J. Diving Team," and "The Metro Stops At RFK."
Bryan Namoff scoring his first goal for United in Game 2, putting in the rebound off Dema Kovalenko's 90th minute free kick. Namoff's conversion from second-string midfielder into one of the League's best defenders has been an inspiring story.
Envisioning Peter Nowak going up to Metros coach Bob Bradley, who had coached Nowak in Chicago, after Game 2 and saying the immortal words of Darth Vader, "When I left you I was but the learner, now I am the Master."