The 2004 MLS Eastern Conference Final will go down in history as one of the greatest matches in American club soccer. The effort put forth by both teams throughout the 120 minutes was absolutely remarkable. The New England Revolution showed amazing resilience time after time, coming from behind on three occasions to tie D.C. United and force a golden goal extra time session.
The final fifteen minutes of the overtime was played at a frenetic pace, with action going from end to end more like an NHL playoff game than a soccer match. The teams were too evenly matched on this evening to determine a winner, and the result had to be settled by the most intense tie-breaking procedure in sports, a penalty kick shootout. From start to finish, the game was a beautiful thing to behold and you could not find a more entertaining match anywhere in the world.
Both teams entered the match with a small group of leaders, the individuals who have been the most essential throughout the seven-month season. In the most critical match of the season, these leaders for both teams rose to the moment.
Alecko Eskandarian was United's top goal scorer during the year. He also scored a handful of beautiful goals, including four that won the Sierra Mist Goal of the Week award, but his most beautiful goal of the year came in the 11th minute of the Conference Final when he blasted a left-footed shot off the inside of the far post and into the goal.
New England responded six minutes later through the best goal scorer in the history of their franchise. Taylor Twellman found a little bit of space in the penalty area behind the United defense, and when Marshall Leonard played a long ball into the box, Twellman leapt and volleyed it coolly into the goal past a helpless Nick Rimando. It was a very difficult goal that was made to look effortless by one of the best goal poachers in the country.
Only four minutes after the equalizer, D.C. United pulled in front thanks to their MVP candidate, leading scorer and all-time franchise playoff leading scorer. United took a short corner that Jaime Moreno quickly returned to Christian Gomez. Gomez chipped to the top of the box for acting team captain Earnie Stewart. Stewart found Moreno just outside the penalty area on the left side. The position was a perfect one for a cross, but instead Moreno whipped a shot into the near post, fooling the defenders and goalkeeper and putting D.C. United back in front.
The lead held up until near halftime when a Revolution cross from the left wing was hit into the fingers of Brian Carroll. Carroll was whistled for a hand ball in the box and New England was awarded a penalty. Team captain Steve Ralston stepped up to the penalty spot and converted the penalty to tie the match. The kick was hit off the post then bounced into the goal off the backside of Rimando. The score was tied at two at the half.
In the 67th minute, United created another great goal when Stewart received a through ball from Eskandarian and crossed to the back post for Gomez, who went airborne and flicked a header all the way across the goal over the head of Matt Reis and into the net. From that point, the Revolution surged into the attack, but the United defense held their shape until a corner kick for the Revs in the 86th minute.
Ralston, one of the best assist men in the history of the league sent a hard cross into the six-yard box. Rimando was waiting to grab it, but before he could get his hands on it Pat Noonan, a player who was tied for the MLS lead in points this season soared into the box and drilled a header into the goal to bring New England level for the third time of the match.
All of the marquee players put on a display. Eskandarian, Moreno and Gomez, the three most creative attacking players for D.C., all scored and the three players who clearly represent New England - Twellman, Ralston and Noonan - scored the three goals for the Revolution. The magnitude of the situation made all of these great players even better, and they should all be commended for their team leadership and for providing the fans with such a wonderful display of attacking soccer that was a true joy to watch.
For D.C. United, once the match reached the penalty shootout, the focus shifted from the leaders to the players making the most of their chances. In the first round of the shootout, both Ben Olsen and Ralston failed to make their kicks - Olsen's shot was saved, Ralston's hit the crossbar. Then in round two it was an unlikely player to come through for United. Santino Quaranta only played 26 minutes during the regular season, but with a depleted bench, Peter Nowak inserted Quaranta in the 106th minute.
Quaranta was United's second penalty taker and he calmly slotted the ball into the lower left corner of the goal for D.C.'s first goal of the shootout. Matt Reis helped himself by scoring in round two and then it was Freddy Adu's turn. The youngest player in the history of the league stepped up to the ball and, with the confidence of a long-time veteran, converted the penalty. Twellman tied the shootout at two. In round four, Eskandarian scored for D.C. and then Rimando took the stage.
There are a lot of superstitions that players have during penalty shootouts, especially goalies. After Eskandarian made his kick the ball stayed in the goal, so when Rimando went to take his place for the next penalty, he threw the ball to Jay Heaps who set up the kick. It is very surprising that a penalty kicker would take the ball directly from the goalie. It seemed like Heaps would hand the ball to the ref, or ask for a new ball, or anything to not take the ball directly from the opposing goalie. But Heaps just prepared for the kick, which was saved by Rimando.
Moreno's kick was saved and Shalrie Joseph converted to send the shootout into a sudden death round. As the 21,000 nervous fans at RFK Stadium looked toward midfield to see who would attempt the next kick for D.C., many of them were probably a little surprised to see who was approaching the ball.
Brian Carroll is an unsung player for D.C. United. He doesn't do anything flashy, he isn't involved in the attacking third very often, he hasn't scored any goals all season and, a lot of times, he can play a solid game and go completely unnoticed. But there is more to Carroll's game than what you can see on a stat sheet.
Only one player for United has played in every single match this season - not Moreno, not Eskandarian, not Adu, not Rimando - but Brian Carroll. If the fans didn't expect Carroll to take the sixth penalty, they certainly didn't expect him to drill the penalty into the side netting, but that's what he did. It was the best kick of the shootout and it was the last one United would need. Clint Dempsey's attempt was sent towards the lower right corner. Rimando went down to his left and kept the shot out of the goal to send D.C. to MLS Cup.
Since the elimination of the MLS Shootout, goalies in the league don't have as many opportunities to celebrate their own accomplishments, but after the decisive save Rimando made the most of his moment. He ran to the corner of RFK in front of the delirious fans and started dancing. Then he leapt into the air and pumped his fist (he didn't jump very high at all, but he was drained physically and emotionally).
So now, D.C. United are into the MLS Cup Final. United will receive an emotional lift from the return of Dema Kovalenko and Ryan Nelsen, both of whom were suspended for the Conference Final. Also, momentum will be high for D.C. after the hard fought and dramatic win over New England.
Standing in their way are the Western Conference Champions, the Kansas City Wizards. The Wizards had the best record in the West and came back from a two-goal deficit to advance to the Conference Final where they beat the Galaxy 2-0 at home. In head-to-head meetings between United and the Wizards this season, each home team won by a score of 1-0, but their last meeting was all the way back on July 10.
Both teams have come a long way since then. If the regular season is any indicator, the match will be a battle of D.C. United's entertaining, attacking style and Kansas City's well-organized defense. It seems like whichever team can impose their style on the match will be victorious. For the fans, the best they can hope for is an MLS Cup that is even half as entertaining as the Eastern Conference Final.
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.