Saturday's MetroStars vs. United match is the first of two crucial meetings between the two sides before the playoffs begin. With the teams occupying the second and third spots in the Eastern Conference, respectively, the odds are that they will joust again in the postseason, with the higher seed hosting the first game of a two-leg series.
With United's 1-8-5 road record, they would clearly rather be at RFK Stadium. D.C. lost to the Metros 3-2 at Giants Stadium in April, but gave out a 6-2 thrashing in the rematch on July 3.
"After we beat New York 6-2, we know they want revenge," says head coach Peter Nowak, "and they know it's going to be a difficult game for us. But we're not afraid -- it's going to be like that next week too, when we play New England at home, and in the playoffs the same thing, so we're ready."
United will have to overcome the absence of two crucial players: leading scorer Alecko Eskandarian and captain and defensive stalwart Ryan Nelsen. Both players are suspended due to cards received last week in Columbus.
Also at risk of missing Saturday's showdown is playmaker Jaime Moreno, who is desperately trying to overcome a hamstring strain that may rob Nowak of his most dangerous attacker.
Youngsters Santino Quaranta, Jason Thompson and David Stokes performed well in Wednesday's international friendly with Municipal (Guatemala), but Nowak's preference for experience in big games will likely give veterans like Earnie Stewart and Ezra Hendrickson the advantage.
"It's an opportunity to get very close to going to the playoffs," says Stewart of the Metros meeting. "A win would be tremendous -- then (the playoffs) pretty much can't escape us. Obviously, it's a loss that Esky's going to be gone and Nellie's going to be gone, but it's crunch time, and that stuff happens in soccer. You've got to react to it and adapt to it."
It seems likely that Stewart will appear in a forward role at some point, while Hendrickson should take over the central defensive role that he occupied earlier in the season during Nelsen's extended injury absence.
United's three-man back line is bracing for an attacking onslaught from the Metros, with Eddie Gaven, Amado Guevara, John Wolyniec and the in-form Cornell Glen all posing dangerous threats.
"Yeah, they're going to take it to us," says DC defender Bryan Namoff. "Obviously it's going to be a good match-up. Every time we have played them it's been pretty physical. We really have to keep focused, and play like this game is our last."
Namoff, along with midfielders Brian Carroll and Dema Kovalenko, have shut down some of the league's top attackers this season, leading to suggestions that United utilize negative tactics to shadow their opponents' dangermen. But Nowak strongly refutes these claims.
"No, I would disagree," he says. "I read about the whole situation, what Jeff Bradley said about that, and I disagree completely. This season, I never took anyone aside and said, 'This is your guy, he's not going to play and you're not going to play.' We have to play our game. So Gaven, or Magee, or whoever is going to be out there, we don't really care."
All season, Nowak has hammered home a team-first approach to his charges, and his outlook on the opposition reflects that philosophy as well.
"What we care about is how we're going to play and the way we're going to play," he says, "so I don't really agree with this type of 'shutting down the opposition's dangerous players.' The whole team is dangerous. This is 11-versus-11, not Guevara versus D.C. United, or Gaven versus D.C. United. It's going to be MetroStars versus DC United."
Clearly, the resumption of this Atlantic Cup rivalry will be a high-stakes affair for all involved.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.