D.C. United's amazing late-season run continued on Saturday night, as they narrowly defeated a spirited New England Revolution side that pushed the Black-and-Red to the very limit in a 3-3 match that was decided by a penalty-kick shootout after 120 minutes of exhausting, end-to-end soccer.
"It was a really emotional rollercoaster," said United coach Peter Nowak. "Give the credit to [head coach] Steve Nicol and his team, they made it very difficult for us tonight, and they deserve to be in the final like us."
The sides went blow-for-blow through the first round of five penalties, and then when Brian Carroll ripped his spot kick into the upper left corner, the pressure was squarely on Rookie of the Year nominee Clint Dempsey's shoulders as he stepped up to take the 12th penalty.
|D.C.-N.E. penalty-kick shootout|
Defying widespread expectations that they would bunker in defense and try to grind out a low-scoring win -- as they did against top-seeded Columbus in the first round -- the Revs came out with all guns blazing, taking the attack to the home side throughout the match.
After making only one save in regulation, Rimando seemed to shine brighter as the game progressed, making six crucial stops during extra time as the Revs threatened to overtake a tiring United side. Rimando's triumph is especially sweet since he struggled with a debilitating knee injury early in the season, at one point losing the starting job to rookie Troy Perkins.
"It was up-and-down, up-and-down, and towards the end New England was very dangerous," said veteran Earnie Stewart, "and Nicky kept us afloat. In the end, he deserves it after coming back from an injury like that."
D.C.'s attacking threesome were up to their normal tricks, with striker Alecko Eskandarian setting the pace with a cracking goal from the top of the box in the 11th minute. Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez also chipped in with quality goals, Moreno beating Revs 'keeper Matt Reis with a sneaky near post shot and Gomez heading home a picture-perfect Stewart cross.
But the underdog Revolution were never out of the match, clawing their way back into contention over and over again. Capitalizing on the absence of suspended D.C. defender Ryan Nelsen, New England whipped in crosses, put together smooth combinations and shot at every possible opportunity.
Their efforts were rewarded as they clambered back to equalize the score three times, first from a pretty Taylor Twellman finish and later through a Steve Ralston penalty kick and Pat Noonan's 85th-minute header.
"I don't think I've ever been a part of a match like that in my life," said Eskandarian.
Afterwards, Nowak could barely contain his elation at having reached the MLS Cup Final in his first year of coaching.
"It was a great game for Major League Soccer," he said, "it was a great game for our fantastic fans tonight, because they stood with us the whole season long."
The former Chicago Fire cup-winner also praised his players as a "very special group."
"I always said, from the day I took this job, that I am very proud of them, and today, they made me proud again," Nowak said. "We could have scored another three or four goals, they could have scored three or four goals. An absolutely fabulous game for everyone -- with a happy ending."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.