D.C. United grabbed the Atlantic Cup, the East's second seed, and the psychological edge on their I-95 rivals the MetroStars with a compelling 3-2 victory at RFK Stadium on Sunday evening.
The energetic crowd of 19,832 was given a full helping of high-intensity soccer as these two old adversaries clashed for the first of three consecutive matches over the next two weeks. United dominated possession in the first half and overcame a glaring susceptibility to the Metros' uncharacteristic crossing attack to earn a tense win behind a double from Christian Gomez and a 64th-minute header by Mike Petke.
United came out strong from the start, Freddy Adu's clever possession near the Metros corner flag tricked Ricardo Clark into a foul that gave D.C. a dangerous free kick. Adu's inswinging service was punched clear by Jonny Walker, but another Metros foul, this time on Alecko Eskandarian, gave up another set piece. Eskandarian sent in a left-footed curler that Petke almost converted at the far post.
The Metros were probing D.C.'s backline with hard work from John Wolyniec and Sergio Galvan Rey, but Ryan Nelsen was a rock at the back, blocking shots, clearing crosses and reading the game perfectly.
But a moment of brilliance from Eddie Gaven and Wolyniec created a stunning Metros opener in the 14th minute. Gaven carried down the left side, and despite looking uncomfortable with the ball on his left foot, beat Bryan Namoff to the endline and delivered a near post cross that caught Nelsen and goalkeeper Nick Rimando napping. Wolyniec's precisely timed run was capped by a diving header to put the score at 1-0.
United struck back almost immediately, with Gomez's lofted ball to the far post finding Earnie Stewart in space, but he scuffed his centering pass and Chris Leitch was able to clear. There was a heart-stopping moment for the Black-and-Red when a sliding Eddie Pope caught Moreno in the face with an errant swing of the arm as the Metros desperately cleared after a goalmouth scramble, but the Bolivian received treatment and jumped right back into the fray.
D.C. looked dangerous in their attacking third, and they were finally rewarded in the 21st minute with Gomez's second goal in as many weeks. Moreno dummied a through ball that the Ben Olsen ran onto behind the Metros back line, and his well-slotted cross found Gomez at the six-yard box. The Argentinian's clinical finish beat Walker to his right and sent the RFK faithful into delirium.
Another breathtaking move from the United attack set Gomez loose for yet another textbook finish in the 29th minute. Adu and Moreno, charging down the left flank almost in unison, combined to slice open the defense, and the Bolivian's curling chip to the top of the box dropped right into Gomez's path. Gomez got there a split second before the onrushing Walker, who could only turn and watch as the Argentinian's delicate flick bounced over the goal line.
The men from the Meadowlands tested Adu's steel early and often, constantly harrying the teenager with elbows, body checks, and late challenges. But the attention only seemed to embolden Adu, making a rare appearance on the left wing due to Dema Kovalenko's suspension.
United now looked electrifying every time they pushed into Metros territory, and two slick stopovers by Eskandarian embarrassed Parke and set the D.C. striker free on the left endline. "Esky" tried to find Moreno at the near post, but the steady Eddie Pope was on hand to block wide.
In the 39th minute, more possession from United opened up space for Olsen to stride forward and sting Walker's hands with a drive from distance, but the Red-and-Black netminder made no mistake in gobbling up the shot.
United was showing a woeful vulnerability on crosses into the box, and deserved to be punished again when Magee was given a free header from point-blank range in the 43rd minute. But the former first-round Superdraft selection skipped his effort off the top of the crossbar, much to Rimando's relief.
The two rivals battled right up to the halftime whistle, and Clark almost caught Rimando at the death with a knuckling shot from 25 yards out, but the Californian leaped acrobatically to tip it over the bar.
Moments after the restart, an unwise giveaway from Petke at midfield gave Gaven another run at goal, but Nelsen was well-positioned to jockey and delay Gaven's pass to Galvan Rey until it came too late to expose Rimando.
In the 50th minute, the RFK crowd was shocked into silence again by Clark's wicked strike from outside the box. Magee cut in from the left and laid off an inviting ball that the Georgia native didn't hesitate to smack past Rimando, just as he had tried to in first half injury time. This time the United 'keeper hesitated before splaying to his left, and the indecision was deadly as Clark found side netting to draw his side even at 2-2.
The Metros were clearly focused on minimizing Moreno's influence, as he continually seemed to have multiple defenders draped all over him when receiving the ball. The extra attention hampered his playmaking ability and unsurprisingly, D.C.'s possession suffered as a result.
The entry of playmaker Amado Guevara had the opposite effect for the Metros, galvanizing his teammates and tipping the advantage to the away side. The United supporters were less than pleased, especially when a dangerous challenge from the Honduran drove D.C. holding midfielder Brian Carroll to the turf.
Momentum swung again in the 64th minute, when Petke popped up in the box to nod home Adu's well-hit corner kick, prompting a shower of toilet paper to rain down from the D.C. fans in "La Norte" section behind the north goal. Stewart had worked hard to earn the corner despite close marking from Parke, and when the teen phenom swung in his service to Petke, the typically goal-shy defender was spot-on with his header past Walker.
D.C. had another anxious moment in the 68th minute when Adu leaped to win a header over Craig Ziadie and was undercut by the Jamaican, flipping head over heels before landing on his back.
Boos cascaded down when Nowak received a yellow card from referee Kevin Terry for dissent, but the first-year coach's concern was clearly warranted, as Ziadie was cautioned again and Adu came off in a daze, replaced by Brandon Prideaux. The second yellow card signaled an early departure for Ziadie and dealt the Metros a crippling blow, as they were forced to finish the match shorthanded.
Just as the Metros had provoked Adu in the first half, their young star Gaven was given a calling card by Nelsen as the two jostled in the D.C. box for position on a free kick. The New Zealand international delivered a stealthy fist to Gaven's face, and was fortunate not to be punished by referee Terry, who gave out seven cards on the evening.
Time proved to be the visitors' worst enemy, however, and after a heart-pounding 90+ minutes of action, Terry blew the final whistle and gave United a 3-2 win -- and the Eastern Conference's second postseason seed.
The two sides will resume the fireworks on Saturday, when Giants Stadium will play host to the first leg of their two-game playoff series.
MetroStars (11-12-7) vs. D.C. United (11-10-9)
October 17, 2004 -- RFK Stadium
MET -- John Wolyniec 10 (Eddie Gaven 7) 14
DC -- Christian Gomez 3 (Ben Olsen 4, Bryan Namoff 2) 23
DC -- Christian Gomez 4 (Jaime Moreno 14, Freddy Adu 2) 29
MET -- Ricardo Clark 1 (Mike Magee 4) 50
DC -- Mike Petke 1 (Freddy Adu 3) 64
MetroStars -- Jonny Walker, Jeff Parke, Eddie Pope (Kenny Arena 62), Chris Leitch, Craig Ziadie, Joselito Vaca (Amado Guevara 46), Ricardo Clark, Mike Magee, Eddie Gaven, Sergio Galvan Rey (Pablo Brenes 70), John Wolyniec.
Substitutes Not Used: Cornell Glen, Zach Wells.
TOTAL SHOTS: 8 (Ricardo Clark 3); SHOTS ON GOAL: 3 (Ricardo Clark 2); FOULS: 16 (John Wolyniec 4); OFFSIDES: 0; CORNER KICKS: 2 (Amado Guevara 1, Mike Magee 1); SAVES: 4 (Jonny Walker 4)
D.C. United -- Nick Rimando, Bryan Namoff, Ryan Nelsen, Mike Petke, Earnie Stewart, Brian Carroll, Christian Gomez (Ezra Hendrickson 87), Ben Olsen, Freddy Adu (Brandon Prideaux 70), Alecko Eskandarian, Jaime Moreno.
Substitutes Not Used: Kevin Ara, Tim Lawson, Troy Perkins, Santino Quaranta, Eliseo Quintanilla, David Stokes, Jason Thompson.
TOTAL SHOTS: 11 (Christian Gomez 5); SHOTS ON GOAL: 7 (Christian Gomez 3); FOULS: 24 (Christian Gomez 4, Earnie Stewart 4); OFFSIDES: 3 (3 tied with 1); CORNER KICKS: 6 (Christian Gomez 4); SAVES: 1 (Nick Rimando 1)
MET -- Ricardo Clark (caution; Reckless Foul) 10
DC -- Earnie Stewart (caution; Reckless Foul) 20
MET -- Craig Ziadie (caution; Reckless Foul) 30
DC -- Mike Petke (caution; Reckless Foul) 61
MET -- Craig Ziadie (caution; Reckless Foul) 68
MET -- Craig Ziadie (ejection; Second Caution) 68
MET -- Amado Guevara (caution; Dissent) 93+
Referee: Kevin Terry
Referee's Assistants: -George Gansner; Kermit Quisenberry
4th Official: Abiodun Okulaja
Time of Game: 1:52
All Statistics contained in this boxscore are unofficial.