Once again, D.C. United have vanquished the hopes and dreams of their rivals from the Tri-State Area in a match of maximum importance. Since the dawn of Major League Soccer, D.C. United and the MetroStars have met 15 times after Sept. 1, including the playoffs. In those 15 matches during the most critical portion of the season, D.C. United have a remarkable 11-3-1 record against the Metros.
All of the losses (one in a shootout) came in the first two years of MLS, years in which United won back-to-back championships. When the games matter most, United always take care of business against the MetroStars. The most recent example was D.C. United dismantling them in the total goals Eastern Conference Semifinal.
In doing so, D.C. United managed to increase the momentum they generated at the end of the regular season. Now they have won five games in a row and seven out of their last eight, making them far and away the hottest team in the league. Despite the energy, confidence and enthusiasm that D.C. United have shown in the past month or so, not all the news is good thanks to a couple of questionable decisions by the referee in Saturday's match.
In the 41st minute of the second leg game, Dema Kovalenko was chasing a through ball into the penalty area. Kovalenko had a step on the defender Craig Ziadie and was on the verge of being all alone against Metros goalie Jonny Walker. Ziadie, knowing he was in trouble, grabbed Kovalenko's shoulder to slow him down.
At the moment when Ziadie grabbed Kovalenko, referee Ricardo Valenzuela was looking at his assistant ref, probably to see if Kovalenko was offside. The flag from the linesman stayed down, but by the time Valenzuela looked at Kovalenko, he was on the turf after being held back by Ziadie. Valenzuela did not see Kovalenko being held. The fact that he missed the call was his first mistake, but then, after not having seen what took place, he elected to give Kovalenko a card for diving, a card that means Kovalenko will be suspended for the Eastern Conference Final.
What would possess a referee to give a yellow card for diving when he had no knowledge of what transpired? The thousands of knowledgeable fans at RFK Stadium all reacted when Kovalenko was held. Did the ref somehow think that the entire stadium was trying to pull one over on him? Anyone close to the game who has witnessed a soccer match at RFK Stadium knows that the fans in Washington D.C. are among the most sophisticated soccer fans in the nation.
If everyone in RFK disagrees with a call then the ref is wrong, plain and simple. It was bad enough that D.C. was not awarded a free kick just outside the penalty area, but Valenzuela compounded his mistake by another even more heinous one, suspending Kovalenko from the next round.
There is no more helpless feeling than knowing that you have been unjustly suspended from your team's next match. When Kovalenko realized what had transpired he ran to the assistant ref pleading his case to deaf ears. The reaction on Kovalenko's face was a mix of horror, disbelief and fury.
It would have been easy for Kovalenko to mope and cease to be a factor in the match. Instead, he quickly regained his composure, played a very solid second half and set up the team's final goal on a great free kick that was cranked off the crossbar and eventually stuffed home by Bryan Namoff.
Kovalenko was not the only player unjustly suspended for the Conference Final, as team captain Ryan Nelsen also picked up his second yellow card of the series. Nelsen is one of the best defenders in the league, and yet in the playoffs, so far he has been treated as a rookie. Nelsen committed only two fouls in the first leg, but was given a yellow card. In the return match, Nelsen committed only one foul and also received a yellow card. Nelsen actually suffered just as many fouls as he committed in the series, but another error in judgment by Valenzuela means D.C. United will be even more shorthanded in the Eastern Conference Final.
Apart from the suspensions, there is still a great deal of excitement and high hopes for United to return to the MLS Cup Final. Besides the continual solid play from D.C. United, the New England Revolution held off the Columbus Crew, which means that D.C. will play one final match at the home of American Soccer, RFK Stadium.
Nowak has dealt with player absences all season and the replacement players will be ready to step into their roles. There is additional incentive now as well. All the United players have been fighting very hard for each other all season, and their determination will surely increase as they try to ensure that their teammates, Dema and Ryan, get a chance to play one more game this season ... in MLS Cup.
Tony Limarzi provides live match commentary for all D.C. United games in English on WMET. He also contributes a column to dcunited.com, which runs every Monday.