On October 2, 1996 (when Freddy Adu was seven years old), D.C. United played their most important match of Major League Soccer's inaugural season, the decisive game three of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the MetroStars. One of United's key players, Jaime Moreno, was suspended for the match, but his replacement, Steve Rammel scored the first goal in D.C.'s dramatic 2-1 victory that propelled them to their first MLS Cup Championship.
Exactly eight years later to the day, once again with key players missing, D.C. United put together a masterful performance to defeat the MetroStars. Will the victory from this past weekend send United towards another MLS Cup? At this point, that prospect is not too far-fetched an idea.
Going into the match at Giants Stadium, things did not look good for United. D.C. had won only one road match all season, they were missing three of their most important players and the Metros were returning home after a two-game road trip. But United overcame the odds, played their most complete match of the entire season, took an early goal from Freddy Adu and defended it to the finish with great pride and determination. After the win there were wide smiles stretched across the faces of the United players, not simply for the result, not just for the progress in the standings, but most likely because after a difficult season away from RFK Stadium, they finally put it all together.
Without Jaime Moreno or Alecko Eskandarian in the lineup, head coach Peter Nowak started Adu. Adu had been playing well recently coming off the bench, but the situation called for a more significant role for the youngster and he rose to the challenge. In the 16th minute, D.C. had a free kick in the attacking third. After the ball was played into the mixer, Dema Kovalenko directed the ball to Adu standing at the top of the box. Adu thighed it down and quickly blasted a right-footed volley that was deflected by MetroStars defender Jeff Parke and sailed into the goal. The goal held up as the only one of the match and Adu earned his first career game-winning goal.
Once United took the lead, the defense took over and earned their second shutout win in their last four matches; they only had two shutout wins in the previous 24 matches. The entire team played excellent defense as a unit, but there were a couple of performances that stood out from the rest.
Ryan Nelsen was suspended for the match, and Ezra Hendrickson played a near-perfect match to make the most of his opportunity in the center of the defense. Hendrickson made a game-changing play early in the first half when a Metros' shot was rolling past goalkeeper Nick Rimando for a sure goal. Hendrickson cleared the ball out of harms way just before the ball would have crossed the goal line.
For the duration of the match, he was in control and made countless clearing headers to frustrate the MetroStars with the long balls they continually played into the box. Hendrickson's one glaring error came in the 34th minute when he was too nonchalant with the ball in his own defensive third and presented Amado Guevara with a clear breakaway. But that chance did not amount to much thanks to one important reason.
Rimando made the most critical save of the match to deny Guevara and keep the Metros off the scoreboard. The last time Rimando played on the artificial turf at Giants Stadium he tore his ACL. Since that time, Rimando had not been playing up to the standards he set for himself in his first years with United. But by his own admission, he now feels better than ever and, for the first time since his injury over a year ago, he looks like the old Nicky. He was very aggressive coming off of his line and he was as sure handed as he has been all season. The reflex save on the breakaway seemed to wake up the rest of the team and from that point on there were no mental lapses.
D.C. United are now in good shape to make the playoffs. They need only a loss or tie by Chicago against Columbus this Wednesday night or one point in their final two matches, both of which are at home. The team was in the identical situation last year with their final two games of the season at home, but this year something is different.
The team has a different attitude this year, an attitude that is often found in championship teams. There were glimpses of it in the loss last weekend in Columbus, but after the win against the MetroStars, the team seems to be oozing with it. Last year, there was a sense that if D.C. United made the playoffs it would be a nice accomplishment since they hadn't been there in several years. This season, with the playoffs looking like a mere formality, D.C. United have a much bigger goal than simply making the postseason.
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.