With a long regular season behind them and the pressure of the playoffs at hand, D.C. United coach Peter Nowak has thrown down the final challenge for his players: win it all.
Nowak has been there. He knows what it takes to win the MLS Cup, having done so when he skippered the Chicago Fire to victory in 1998 in the inaugural year of that club. "Everyone is talking about it, but only one is going to get it," Nowak said. "It's not that easy. I don't believe in talk, I don't believe in empty words. We have to keep going, we have to work hard again, and even harder." The Black-and-Red were inconsistent all year, but came roaring back in the last month to grab second place in the Eastern Conference, powered by five wins in their last six matches. Quiet confidence abounds in the United camp, but Nowak is demanding more than ever from his charges.
"Nothing has changed from my perspective," said the first-year head coach. "I'm going to keep my values and ask for more, because I want it all. We have to get something special from them -- I feel very strongly about this group and I think we have a special group of players."
United has good reason to think big. The team took three victories from their four regular season matches against the MetroStars, their first-round playoff opponents, including a pulsating 3-2 victory last Sunday. If they can overcome their Atlantic Cup rivals and advance to the conference final, United would face either Columbus or New England, against whom D.C. is a combined 3-1-4 this year.
Leading goalscorer Alecko Eskandarian reflects the squad's mindset as they prepare for Saturday's postseason opener at Giants Stadium.
"We're definitely confident," he said. "We go into every game knowing that we can win, and we expect to win, there's no question about it. If we don't, we're disappointed in ourselves, because we know we have what it takes to win each game.
"We have a bigger picture in our minds right now, as far as MLS Cup, and we know what it takes to get there. We have some great veterans on this team who've been there before, and provided some great leadership for us. We've just got to follow their lead and keep it going."
United has entertained fans with their fluid, attacking style of play all year, but their late charge up the standings owes much to a newfound commitment to earn positive results at all costs. Early October's back-to-back 1-0 wins, against New England and at the MetroStars, were scrappy, determined efforts that pleased the coach, even if they might not have pleased the casual observer.
"At the beginning of the season, we were playing pretty good soccer, only we didn't have the drive we needed to have," said Nowak. "We got a lot of cheap goals against us, and we were always chasing the game. "(Now) they find a way to win these games. I always believe that when the soccer part is not great, you have to run, and fight. And through these two values, you go back to your game. This kind of mentality is going to get you the world. This is how we win the small battles, the bigger battles. It's amazing how this works, but all credit goes to them."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.