Saturday's showdown between D.C. United and the MetroStars at RFK Stadium promises to be one of the most important chapters in this entertaining rivalry. The men from the Meadowlands will try desperately to claw their way back from a 2-0 setback in the first leg, while United look to defend their lead and ring up a few insurance goals with their suddenly lethal lightning-quick counterattacks.
Both teams are totally focused on this weekend's second leg in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, which promises to be a tense affair that might well go down to the wire. But there's little question that the winner of the D.C.-Metros series will be watching Sunday's Columbus-New England clash with considerable interest.
The Revoution, who needed a last-ditch, season-ending win against Chicago just to squeeze into the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, surprised the top-seeded Crew with a 1-0 victory at Gillette Stadium last week, after the Crew had concluded the regular season with an MLS-record 18-game winning streak.
If the Revs can maintain their slim advantage over the Supporters Shield holders with a win, draw, or on penalties after a loss by one goal, D.C. United or the Metros will host the Eastern Conference Final.
United's players clearly aren't looking past the MetroStars, but midfielders Earnie Stewart and Josh Gros, like most of their teammates, will clearly be rooting for New England.
"Yeah, I will, when I turn on the TV," said Stewart. "I'm pretty sure everybody will. That home-field advantage is big, and it's key. I was very happy, obviously, with winning ourselves and then hearing the result of the New England game. Hopefully they can squeak one out in Columbus -- I'd like to play at home."
"Both teams are good, but of course you'd rather play at home," said Gros, "so that means we'd play New England."
United is undefeated against New England this year, having won the season series 2-0-2, while the MetroStars split their results with the Revs (1-1-2).
United coach Peter Nowak has helped restore the "fortress" mentality at RFK that helped foster the club's late '90s dynasty, as the Black-and-Red posted a 9-2-4 record at home in 2004. He hails the passion and dedication of D.C.'s fans, a large contingent of whom traveled to Giants Stadium for last week's match.
"The fans were fantastic in New York. They traveled with us, and it was fantastic for the guys to see what kind of support they have," said Nowak. "I expect that (for) this Saturday's game, the fans are going to react like they reacted all season long.
"That's why we played so strong at home. Sometimes they say the fans are the 12th man -- I think that was the key to our success at home. I'm sure they are going to help us at the moment we really need them."
Going into Saturday's match, United are as healthy as they've been all year. Freddy Adu seems to have recovered from the lingering effects of a sprained shoulder sustained two weeks ago which helped keep him out of D.C.'s first playoff game. Captain Ryan Nelsen, who sat out training earlier in the week due to a mild ankle sprain, has returned to full workouts and should assume his normal spot in the center of defense.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.