and arguably in the last five years -- with an attitude of relaxation, confidence and excitement.
"We're going to L.A. and we have nothing to lose," said United head coach Peter Nowak in a media conference call on Tuesday. "Everyone is going to be ready to play the game on Sunday."
Fortunately for United, "everybody" will encompass their full roster, including defender and captain Ryan Nelsen and veteran midfielder Dema Kovalenko, both of whom were suspended for last Saturday's Eastern Conference Final. That game, in which United defeated the New England Revolution 4-3 on penalty kicks after a thrilling 120 minutes of soccer with three goals for each side, has been called one of the greatest in MLS history. It was also an eye-opening experience for Nelsen, who could only watch helplessly on the bench as United battled with the Revs.
"If it's (always) like that thing on the sidelines, I told Peter before the game, I don't want to go into coaching very quickly," said Nelsen. "I think trying to get there (to MLS Cup) is the hard part. The boys are ready, as are K.C., and it's going to be like a boxing match. It's going to be all fists up and ready to go. I'm looking forward to it."
Sunday's contest should be an interesting match between D.C. United and Kansas City, as the teams sport contrasting styles. The Wizards are renowned for their tight defense, while United are recognized as one of the most dangerous attacking sides in the league. Kansas City's MLS-best 14-9-7 regular season record is a testament to their consistency, while United are riding the longest winning streak of the season coming into Sunday's showdown.
The Black-and-Red have won their last eight league matches in a row after an up-and-down campaign during which they put together back-to-back victories only twice, and those both arrived in the last five weeks of the season. They haven't lost since Sept. 25, when the Columbus Crew snatched the points in a 1-0 victory where United played a man down for more than a half.
But all of that is in the past now and the only numbers that really matter anymore will be those that are displayed on the scoreboard at The Home Depot Center this weekend. The Wizards are a formidable opponent, but one that Nowak has some experience with. He was a teammate of Wizards striker Josh Wolff and midfielder Diego Gutierrez when they captured the Chicago Fire's only MLS Cup title in 1998. In fact, Nowak assisted on a Gutierrez goal in the 45th minute that iced a 2-0 victory over none other than D.C. United.
"I'm sure that Kansas City is going to be a difficult opponent for us," said Nowak. "We're going to meet again with Josh Wolff and Diego Gutierrez. From the beginning I called him (Wolff) 'Michael Owen,' from the moment he came to the Chicago Fire. He has been through a lot with his injuries but I'm happy that he's doing so well right now."
"It's going to be a lot of fun chasing him around," said Nelsen.
Another man who has had his fair share of injury troubles, but who has come through this season is United striker Jaime Moreno. After a disappointing season with the MetroStars in 2003, cut short by a serious back injury, Moreno returned to D.C., where he has once again flourished. His experience in MLS Cup matches is sure to help United, not to mention his deadly shooting, accurate passes and creativity with the ball.
"I believed truly in Jaime's comeback," said Nowak. "We want to keep him hungry for coming back. The team obviously helped him with that."
Said Nelsen: "Jaime's influence and his experience has helped so many things. Everyone sees the goals and the assists, but to me it's the little things on and off the field. You can't put a price on that kind of stuff. For me, he's MVP of the league, hands down." D.C. will undoubtedly be looking towards the Bolivian international for leadership and experience, but they could also turn to a slightly less-experienced player in Major League Soccer's championship game. Fifteen-year-old rookie Freddy Adu could make his first MLS Cup appearance Sunday, which would place him in the league record books once again, this time as the youngest player in MLS Cup.
"It's amazing how much he has improved from Day One," said Nelsen.
"I'm not surprised," said Adu, on making it to MLS Cup in his first season. "It was pretty funny because I was asked the question (at MLS Cup 2003) if I was going to be there next year playing and I said yes. It's great. Maybe I didn't expect it, but I had so much faith in the team ... Now we've just got one more game to go and we know we have our work cut out for us so we're going to prepare heavily for that both physically and mentally."
Jonathan Nierman is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.