What a great regular season it was for D.C. United. Before the season even began, there was a lot of excitement surrounding the club from the Nation's Capital. Then 14-year old soccer phenomenon Freddy Adu was preparing to make his impact on the world of sports and Jaime Moreno, one of the greatest players in the history of Major League Soccer, was returning to his home with D.C. United. Then, after a few shaky weeks, the team started playing well just in time to soar into second place on the eve of the postseason. So many great memories, so much excitement, so what?
The strange thing about the playoffs (in any sport) is that everything that happened during the regular season becomes quickly irrelevant. Though the Columbus Crew haven't lost a league match since June 26, that doesn't make their match at New England any easier this coming weekend. D.C. United have beaten the MetroStars three straight times, but that won't be very comforting if United lose in the Meadowlands on Saturday.
The last six and a half months of soccer don't affect the postseason and so teams don't need to look backwards as a guide for what to expect, they need to look inside themselves for the intangibles that separate the Cup finalists from the early exit-ers. If a team doesn't bring the right mentality into the playoffs, that team will not compete for the league championship, and that fact may be what gives D.C. United the upper hand.
Every team wants a little momentum heading into the postseason and D.C. United have certainly accomplished that with five victories in their past six matches, including three straight. But even more impressive than the results themselves is the manner in which the wins came about.
First, it was a victory on the road against the MetroStars. In that match, United was playing without Jaime Moreno, Ryan Nelsen and Alecko Eskandarian, but the rest of the team made every play necessary to ensure the win. That was a gritty performance in a hostile atmosphere that showed that United have the strength and pride to win difficult matches.
The win in New Jersey was followed by another shutout victory vs. New England - a team that at the time was fighting for their playoff lives. United took advantage of a timely goal, and then, down to only 10 men, held off an aggressive Revolution side desperate for the equalizer. Finally, this past weekend vs. the Metros again, United came from behind in the first half, thanks to two goals from Christian Gomez and found the game-winning goal from Mike Petke to wrap up second place in the Eastern Conference.
But if the regular season is a thing of the past, what difference does the recent winning streak make? It's not the results that matter. It's the mentality. D.C. United have shown great focus and determination over the past month, and especially in the final three weeks of the season. The defense posted back-to-back shutout wins in the most important two matches of the season. Then, with second place on the line, the attacking play created three goals for United when anything less would not have been enough.
So apart from the winning streak, D.C. United of late have consistently demonstrated a stingy defense and timely goal scoring. Besides just timely goal scoring, another factor that cannot be overemphasized in the postseason is multiple scoring threats. In 1996, Marco Etcheverry, Moreno and Raul Diaz Arce were the three most important players for D.C. United. However, without Shawn Medved, D.C. United would not have won the MLS Cup.
Medved's equalizer in the 81st minute of the inaugural MLS Cup came from an unlikely source to say the least, but no one knows when players will get a chance to score a critical goal. Eleven different players have scored this year for D.C. United. If a match comes down to a player getting a chance at goal, the more players who have put the ball in the goal, the better your chances of winning.
D.C. United has shown the right mentality in recent weeks and their strong play has put them in the best position to do well in the playoffs in quite a while. They may have a slight mental advantage over their first-round opponent after beating them twice in a span of 16 days.
The pride and determination of D.C. United only matters if it continues into next weekend, otherwise all of the hard work from the past weeks will be in vain. But if the energy, confidence and enthusiasm continue to be high for D.C. United, the second season may begin the same way the regular season ended.
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.