At Giants Stadium this Saturday, the MetroStars will host D.C. United in the first leg of the 2004 Major League Soccer Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. This will be the first time these two teams have squared off in the playoffs since the inaugural MLS Cup Playoffs in 1996.
If distance makes the heart grow fonder, fans won't have to worry about these bitter rivals becoming close friends any time soon. By the end of this month, the teams will have played each other six times in 2004, including four games in the month of October. And if history is any indicator, there won't be many hugs or handshakes exchanged on the field.
Fans of both teams have grown accustomed to seeing physical soccer when the MetroStars take the field against D.C. United. This season has been no exception. In their first four meetings, there were several pushing and shoving matches and a total of 17 yellow cards were shown, including two last week to Craig Ziadie. Ziadie received his second yellow card when he collided with 15 year-old D.C. midfielder, Freddy Adu. The collision led head coach, Peter Nowak, to replace the young midfielder. As a result of the two cautions, Ziadie was removed from the game and will sit out the opening match of the playoffs. Ziadie's expulsion is only a continuation of the rough, physical play that has become something to expect when these two teams meet up in MLS competition.
September 14, 2002 may well be remembered as the prime example of the bad blood between these Eastern Conference rivals. This game was marked with physical play and saw two MetroStars sent off over the course of 90 minutes.
In the 30th minute, with the score reading 1-0 in the MetroStars favor, Clint Mathis had a momentary lapse of self-control when he stepped on D.C. midfielder, Jose Alegria's back. Mathis was sent off with a red card leaving the Metros with only 10 men. D.C. was able to capitalize on the man-advantage in first-half stoppage time when Bobby Convey tallied to knot the game at one goal apiece. The score remained tied until a Marco Etcheverry pass to Ali Curtis led to the deciding goal in the 87th minute.
Just moments later, in second-half stoppage time, the MetroStars received yet another blow. As D.C. brought the ball toward goal, 'keeper, Tim Howard, came out of his box and made a hard challenge on striker, Roy Lassiter. The official once again brought out his red card sending Howard to an early shower.
The MetroStars faithful will certainly have a fonder recollection of July 5, 2003. On that date, the MetroStars would get an overtime goal from sixteen year old, Eddie Gaven, to overcome a 35th minute red card to defender, Kenny Arena.
At the end of yet another physical and exciting half of soccer, the score remained tied at 2-2. As the clock moved towards the end of regulation in the second half, Howard made two instinctive and reflexive saves keeping the ball out of the net and a victory within reach for the MetroStars.
In the early moments of the overtime period, exploiting a loophole in MLS substitution rules (allowing a fourth substitution to be made for the goalkeeper), Gaven entered the game as goalkeeper replacing Mark Lisi. Soon after the substitution, Gaven returned the gloves to Howard and moved into his usual midfield position, allowing Howard to replace him between the pipes. Moments later, on a run up the left flank, Gaven received a pass from Amado Guevara. In space, Gaven sent a left-footed shot past United goalkeeper, Nick Rimando to score his first-ever MLS goal and secure the victory for the MetroStars.
For both teams, winning games against the other always has added significance. And, although the MetroStars won only one game out of four during the regular season, they know that the only game that matters now is the one on Saturday. While it is always special to beat a rival, it would mean much more to advance to the Eastern Conference Final with a chance to play for the MLS Cup.
While some may see Saturday's game as a continuation of the season series, the MetroStars and D.C. United know that the stakes are much higher than that. The playoffs represent a new challenge. There are only two outcomes in the playoffs: Win and move on or lose and go home. No team is willing to accept the later and that gives reason to expect more exciting, physical soccer.