D.C. United played the first 25 matches of the season without winning back-to-back games. Now, with the playoffs only one weekend away, D.C. United have won four out of their last five games and will be playing at home for a chance to overtake the MetroStars for second place in the Eastern Conference and enter the playoffs as the hottest team in Major League Soccer.
As a team, D.C. United have struggled to play well consistently all season, but the MLS season is so long that mistakes made early in the season are all but forgotten, and the only thing on the minds of the players and coaches is to maintain the winning formula that United have found of late. The offense has made the most of their chances, the defense has shown a great deal of pride and the goalkeeping has risen to the occasion in critical moments.
All season, Jaime Moreno and Alecko Eskandarian have carried the offensive load for D.C. Moreno deserves to be named the league's Most Valuable Player and Eskandarian's ability in the final third has made him one of the league's best goal scorers. In the recent stretch however, other players have started to emerge as additional scoring threats, which not only provides relief for Moreno and Eskandarian, but also make United that much more dangerous.
Neither Moreno nor Eskandarian has scored in the past two matches. Last weekend, Freddy Adu provided the lift with a game-winning goal against the MetroStars. This past weekend in the shutout victory versus the New England Revolution, it was Christian Gomez who scored. Ben Olsen played a cross through the penalty area. The ball dipped over the head of Eskandarian, and then bounced at the top of the six-yard box. Gomez quickly went parallel and volleyed the ball past Matt Reis and into the net for his first game-winning goal with United.
The goal was acrobatic to say the least, but more important than the athleticism was the timeliness. In a match where D.C. didn't really create that many scoring chances, it was essential that Gomez finish his one quality opportunity in the box. For United to contend for the MLS Cup, they will need all players, even the unsuspecting ones, to rise to the occasion when the situation presents itself, just like they have been lately.
The defense is playing even better than the offense. United is coming off back-to-back shutout victories for the first time since August of 2002. New England entered RFK Stadium with the highest goal-scoring tandem of strikers in MLS, but after dealing with Mike Petke, Ryan Nelsen and Bryan Namoff for 90 minutes, both Taylor Twellman and Pat Noonan left the field more than a little frustrated.
United's defense didn't even miss a beat when Dema Kovalenko was sent off due to a unjust second yellow card with 15 minutes remaining. Twellman and Noonan are very talented attacking players, but neither one had much space in which to operate. United's defense kept total concentration for the entire match, and Twellman and Noonan were marked so tightly throughout the match that it's likely that Petke, Nelsen and Namoff were sitting next to them on the team bus back to the hotel.
No matter how well a defense plays, the other teams will still have some chances. But when opponents get chances, they quickly see them go by the wayside thanks to Nick Rimando. Rimando played well early and often against the Revolution, making a diving save in the opening minutes, catching a blasted shot from close range midway through the first half and punching away corner kicks in stoppage time. Rimando's confidence is growing with every victory, and a goalkeeper's emotion usually flows throughout the rest of the team.
So, once again the table is set for a feast of Major League Soccer's best rivalry. D.C. United and the MetroStars will end the regular season with a match this Sunday at RFK Stadium. Regardless of the outcome, the two will meet in the playoffs for the first time since the inaugural season of MLS. If D.C. wins this Sunday, they earn home field advantage and will play the second leg of the home-and-home series at RFK. A loss or a tie for D.C. means that they stay in third place in the Eastern Conference and begin the playoffs at home.
If the most recent meeting between these two teams is any indication, the bad blood from the early days of MLS is starting to re-boil and, with the teams set to do battle with the entire season on the line, fans, players and coaches should get ready for 270 minutes of the most intense soccer of the season.
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.