Historically speaking, whenever D.C. United has been in a critical point in the season (or playoffs), it always seems like the schedule has them facing their most bitter rivals, the MetroStars. Ever since the beginning of Major League Soccer, D.C. United and the MetroStars have always battled tooth and nail. The teams have played 36 times including the playoffs, and only six matches have been decided by more than one goal. The players have changed, the coaches have changed, the uniforms have changed, but the rivalry remains the same.
Last season, D.C. United had a stretch of the season in late September when they played the MetroStars twice in four days. A convincing 2-0 win for United on the road set up a classic battle at RFK Stadium. If United had won the second meeting, they would have catapulted past the MetroStars into second place in the Eastern Conference. Instead, a goal from Mike Magee in second-half stoppage time helped the MetroStars escape with a tie, and D.C. stumbled into fourth place entering the playoffs.
In the 1996 MLS playoffs, D.C. United was trailing the best of three series one game to none. Halfway through Game Two D.C. was still tied at zero. Finally in the 72nd minute, Marco Etcheverry scored one of the most important goals in United's history, forcing a Game Three which United won 2-1 on a 90th minute penalty from Raul Diaz Arce. The eventual inaugural MLS Cup Champions had to go through the MetroStars to claim their prize as champions, and if United wants to make a serious run this season, the same holds true this weekend at RFK.
So this season, once again the stage is set as the MetroStars make their first visit to RFK this weekend with the top of the Eastern Conference on the line. As soccer continues to move to the forefront of American summer sports, it's very appropriate to celebrate Independence Day with a clash of American soccer's most heated rivals from America's two most important metropolises.
D.C. United is starting to get results closer to what they expected earlier in the year, as they are now undefeated in three matches. The MetroStars are also playing better having recently completed a home and home sweep of the L.A. Galaxy. The MetroStars who had a couple of games in hand on United for most of the season have a mid-week match against Colorado, and come Saturday both teams will be playing in their 15th game of the season.
The match comes at the exact midway point in the season for both clubs, and even though the teams meet for the final two times in October, the game on Saturday will be a barometer for the final 15 games. The table in the Eastern Conference is pretty close together and the league tiebreakers could very well come into play when it comes time for playoff seedings.
So what should be expected from the match this Saturday? A healthy Ryan Nelsen would make a big difference for the defensive responsibilities of United. If Nellie isn't game fit, look for newly acquired Ezra Hendrickson to add support on the back line. As far as the United attack, Jaime Moreno figures to be a major factor in the final third of the field. In his career against the MetroStars, Moreno has played 23 games, scored 17 goals and collected eight assists. That comes to a total of 42 points in 23 matches, nearly two points per game. It should be a fun match-up as central defender Eddie Pope faces off against his former long-time teammate in Moreno. Jaime will be aggressive around the goal, but also ready to make sure that his partner Alecko Eskandarian stays hot, as he looks to score in three straight matches.
For the MetroStars, the offense always seems to run through Amado Guevara. There isn't any one clear scoring threat for the MetroStars, but they are successful using the goal scorer by committee method, led by Magee, John Wolyniec and Eddie Gaven. United fans will also remember Fabian Taylor who ambushed United with two goals in a 13-minute frenzy that handed D.C. their first loss of the season back in April.
The intensity is always a little bit higher when D.C. United and the MetroStars go at it. This is the portion of the season where the real MLS Cup contenders start to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. D.C. United hasn't taken advantage of similar situations in a long time, but the MetroStars have a history of bringing the best out of United. With the crowd RFK Stadium creating the right atmosphere at kickoff, D.C. United could finally manage to earn their second straight victory at home and set a course for the second half of the year.
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.