Do you think the excitement of the Conference final will somehow lessen the intensity of the team going into MLS Cup?
"I think it's very important that we'll have Ryan Nelsen and Dema Kovalenko back, because they'll give us a boost. It was a tough night, but everyone looks like they've recovered and they're ready for Sunday."
What do you think of Kansas City?
"They are a very hard working team. We've played them twice this year and they were very tough games. We won at home 1-0 and they won at home 1-0. We're going to LA, and we have nothing to lose. The points during the regular season don't matter. At this point, everyone knows we're playing for the Cup. I expect the same mentality and same approach. We're not going to change. We're going to have our game plan we're not going to change."
Coming in as a rookie coach, it has to be very satisfying to get to the final. Can you talk about that?
"It was a long season, but it was great. The guys really came though. The young players developed the right way and I'm really happy of them. I'm really proud of this group, because I feel they're a very special group. They've stuck together and believe in each other, they believe in the work they've been doing and they believe in my way. It was difficult with some players who didn't play as much as they wanted, but at some point we needed them all. We have twenty-four players who are ready to go. Ezra Hendrickson and Josh Gros showed that on Saturday. As I said, everyone is important to me and to this team. It was a great season. But we aren't done yet."
As much credit you give the players for a great team, the league gives you credit by making you a finalist for Coach of the Year. What does that mean to you?
"I'm very fortunate that I've got such a great group of players. Being nominated as Coach of the Year is a great honor, especially if you look at the coaches that aren't in this category. Bob Gansler and Greg Andrulis did great things with their teams in my opinion. It's a complete effort from the players and the organization. I think Mark Simpson and Tommy Soehn should be nominated too, because we're one team. We made all the decisions together. I'm too old to play with these guys, but it's great to be on the other side right now."
When you signed Jaime Moreno did you think he would have such a big impact this season?
"I don't think anybody knew what Jaime would do, but you have to believe. From our perspective, we had to believe he would come back and be one of the best in Major League Soccer. We gave him some confidence, because we never doubted his attitude and mentality. We didn't know that it would happen so fast. He did a great job with our medical staff and his personal trainer. Week after week, we just had to make sure that he was going to be hungry for goals and assists. I think he realized that was the right way to do it. When I met Jaime in pre-season, he was the guy who told me, 'Peter, I just want to get back and make myself ready for the season.' I knew that he was always one of the best in the League. We wanted to keep him at the same level once he got there - not too high, not too low. I think his mentality and approach was great for the other guys, especially the young players."
Jaime Moreno - forward
What are the differences between this MLS Cup and the previous cups you have gone to with D.C. United?
"Every one is different. Each championship was special. This one is special, because halfway through the season, we picked it up. A lot of people believed we weren't capable of it and I think we're showing that it was just a matter of time. We turned the corner at the right time, and we're now we're here.
Have you ever been in a game like the Conference Final against New England?
"Not that I recall. It was a great game. A lot of the fans told me after the game that they almost had a heart attack. Penalty kicks are a bit of a lottery. It was a nice game."
Why do you think this team was able to get to this point?
"We realized that we had a good team. With all the hard work from the pre-season, we thought 'Why shouldn't we have a good team?' Once we realized that, everyone started to pick it up and work together."
What would it mean to you if you won the league's Most Valuable Player award?
"It just means that I worked really hard and people recognized that. I think that would be nice because of the way I came back. But my focus is on the final. I'm just so glad to be in the final. If I get the MVP, it will be a nice award on top of that."
A year ago did you think you would ever be back to this point?
"No, I think at that the time I was only worried about recovering and getting a job. I was lucky to do that."
Was there a point where everything clicked and you knew that you would recover?
"I knew around the end of pre-season in Mexico that I felt better. Once the season started, I felt good. Then I started playing more games and I felt tired at one point. But I knew that I would recover and come back and perform at the same level. I was just all the hard work in training."
What changed with the team to turn the corner of the season?
"Like I said, after the Chicago game, we all sat down and started talking. Everybody had their point on what was happening. Everything clicked and we all got on the same page."
What has it been like playing with Eskandarian and watching him develop?
"'Esky' has scored some nice goals this year and has been a key too. It's always easier when you have somebody that can score goals. The whole group has been amazing. We've been through many up and downs. Finally, we found the rhythm and we went on a six or seven game winning streak. When you're on the same page everything is easier, and that's how we felt. We had that feeling that we could go at the defenders, pass them, and then score. That's the feeling you get starting from the goalkeepers and going to the forwards, winners."
How important was it for the team to get on the scoreboard early?
"Very important, even though they were able to come back and score. It was a tough game. We knew that scoring early was going to be important."
Are you feeling any pressure going into the final?
"Not at all."
After what you have gone through, the injury and then having to earn a job, will this MLS Cup mean more to you?
"Yes and no. It is special because of what you are talking about - what I've been through. But, we have to win it or we'll be just like the other eight teams. It will be a bad feeling. Our feelings are strong and I think we're going to win the Cup. We know it's not going to be easy, and hopefully we're going to bring the Cup back to DC. The last one was in 1999. We always wanted to bring the cup back to DC. Now we have a bunch of guys that are a great team. Every year has been different, and this one is going to be special. Like I said, I don't want to speak too soon, but we want to win the Cup."
How much credit do you give to Coach Nowak for bringing the team to this point?
"Well, he's the coach. He's as responsible as we are. As he says, he can't get on the field, but as much as he knows and what he's said to us we've tried to put it on the field. It's been a big help and good for us."
You will be facing a strong Kansas City defense. Will your game change any?
"No, they're going to be more concerned about us more than we'll be concerned them. I prefer them to worry me than me to worry about them. I always say that I'm not worried about the defenders. I know they have strong defenders. It's going to be a tough game. It's going to be a battle. We're prepared for that. We're to the point now that everybody is anxious and ready to get there."
Ben Olsen - midfielder
What are your impressions of Kansas City and what they have had to overcome to face you in MLS Cup?
"They're a great story. They've lost some of their big pieces - Tony (Meola), Chris Klein - two of the best players that have been in this League. They've come through a lot. Saying that, so have we. We've been through a lot of distractions, a lot of ups and downs. It wasn't the greatest season for us, and at some point we brought it all together. Now here we are a week before facing a good defensive team that is dangerous in the counters."
You have not faced them since July. Does that make it more difficult to play them?
"We don't know as much about them as we would playing the Metrostars or playing New England. But we get to watch them quite a bit on TV. We saw the last game. That's what they're all about - playing good solid defense and catching people on the counter. We have to be very sharp going forward and when we do lose it we have to get back and not lose our shape so we don't get caught on counters by Josh Wolff and Davey Arnaud.
What are the differences between the 1999 MLS Cup season and this season?
"This one just kind of crept up on us. In 1999, we just cruised through the season. This one is a little bit more special. It feels better because we were down and out. In mid-season did we think we would be here? We didn't know. In 1999, we were pretty sure we would be in the championship. It's a great group of guys. Even when we haven't done well, we never lost it. We always kept a pretty good spirit throughout the season even in the bad times."
What can you tell the other players about being in MLS Cup?
"It's cliché, but you have to really enjoy being in these games because you don't get into them too many times. I was in the finals my first two years and thought, 'Professional soccer is great! You go to the finals every year, and sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. It's no big deal'. Then you go on a three-year drought and you realize how special those games were. To be back, I'm going to take advantage of it, and try to portray the guys to look around and enjoy the environment and the whole weekend. I don't remember much of my first two, so hopefully I'll remember this one."
Why did this team succeed?
"We're stacked with talent and no one ever doubted that. We've got some experience players, a good mix of young and old. I don't know why. It's just been good character that has brought us through the tough times. We came together and said, 'Enough is enough. We need to get together and do what we did at the beginning of the year.' During the middle of the year we got, I wouldn't say 'selfish', but we got lazy and we had to tighten up a little bit."
Does the pressure feel different this time because MLS Cup did creep up on the team?
"I feel a little bit of different, a little bit of the underdog, than before with this team. Like you said, we crept in and started winning and fighting for each other style of soccer. Maybe that will help us."
How big of an impact has Rimando's return and outstanding play been?
"Yeah, of course. You ride a hot a goalie as long as you can, and Nick is as hot as they come in this league right now. Speaking from experience, when you go through an injury like that, it takes awhile, and he got thrown back in pretty quick. Confidence-wise, if you have a bad game or two, it can get to you. All the credit to him when Troy (Perkins) came in because you never heard any talk like, 'I want to get out of here . . . This isn't the place for me.' He just kept working and working. You could see him gaining confidence and strength in his knee. I knew that it was a matter or time, and it's no disrespect for Troy, but I know how good Nicky is when he's healthy. You saw him in 2002."
What are your impressions of Jaime Moreno?
"I'm very happy for him. When he came back, I knew that we weren't just getting a great player, but I was also happy because I was getting a friend back. We've been through a lot of stuff with this team. It's special for him because he's been down and out. With my experience, and I've been there. There's nothing better than coming back, with people doubting you, and you come back and prove people wrong. I hope he gets the MVP. I don't think it's even close. Hopefully, he puts on another show in LA. I'm sure he will. . . . He's a guy that makes your jaw drop when we watch him play. He does it with such ease. That's the thing people see when they watch him out there. He doesn't play like me, running around like an idiot, arms waving, and struggling all day long. He's fluid, and he plays the game so beautifully. That's what's so amazing about Jaime. And he's a clown in the locker room. He's one of the more carefree guys. He keeps things loose. . . . Jaime and Alecko (Eskandarian) remind me a little bit of Jaime and Roy Lassiter back in the day. They used to compete for goals. Jaime would have one and the next day Roy would have one. I think that's great. I think that's some of the healthiest competition you see in teams all over the world - when you have two hot forwards the team is going to be successful."
What do you think of Eskandarian's performance this year?
"It's not surprising, and it's not hard to say that after this year. I saw some stuff from this kid in college. Some of the goals he scored in college, with his width and speed, and pace, he's got the whole package. We saw it in practice a lot in practice last year, and we knew once he got hot he would be OK. Him and BC (Brian Carroll), they went with the Olympic Team during the break last year, and I think that gave them a lot of confidence coming into the pre-season after playing against the National Team and other international teams. They came in pretty sharp, and they've kept it up."
Earnie Stewart - midfielder
With all of your experience, what will you tell the younger players about this game?
"I don't know, not too much actually. A lot of those younger guys stood up last Saturday. Those guys had, how do you say it nicely . . . they had the balls to step up and take PKs. I don't think we have to say too much. It's just another game. Of course, it's a very exciting game for us. We just have to try to keep the nerves down a little bit. Once the game starts, and the ball gets rolling, I'm sure everyone is going to settle down and do the business on the field."
Have you ever played a Cup final?
"Never a Cup final. A Cup final is something different. I've been a champion before, but never a Cup final. You build a whole season, and build something up, but this is actually just a one game deal. Back then, for the championship, we had three games to play, and we needed only one point. So, that makes the pressure in that situation much less. This is pressure. . . . I've gotten very close, but got knocked out in the quarter and semi-final rounds. It's going to be the first time for me, too."
Are you feeling any pressure?
"No, not now. With me it always comes the day before the game, and when you're going to the game. Not so much before."
What are your thoughts about Kansas City?
"Kansas City is a very organized team. Bob Gansler put something down there where they have a system, everybody works for each other on the team, and they're outstanding defensively. I do have to say that it surprised me how easily they did the transition when they were down 2-0 to San Jose, and they won at home. That shows they have some good offensive skills too. They're just a very good defensive team and they have some offensive ability too."
How satisfying is it that the team was down at one put and you have managed to get to this point?
"It's very satisfying because we had a very, very difficult stretch in the middle period. I think the turning point was the Chicago game when we sat in the locker room, all of us together, and we pretty much had it out, all of us. That helped us so much. Everybody pretty much stood up and had their say. After that we got on with what we wanted to do. Of course, we had some difficult moments in games which we got through, and the result was there. That makes it very satisfying."
Does the team need to do anything special because it is a special game?
"I don't believe you have to change anything. It's gone well for us for the last two to two and a half months, and we just need to do the same thing. You don't go outside the book too much. It's all about the twenty-four players doing the same thing, and not trying to do too much outside, and keeping the nerves down."
What are your thoughts about Jaime Moreno?
"For me, he's the MVP no matter if he gets it or not. He's one of those special players that . . . I don't know . . . you just see it. The first time Jaime got the ball, the way he touched it, you saw that he was something different, something special. We drive to work together everyday, carpool together, and he's not only an outstanding player, but he's a fantastic person. . . . Like I said, he does things that normal people can't do. It's hard to explain. Claudio Reyna has the same thing for the National Team. When they get the ball everything in the game seems to slow down. Zidane is the same way. All of a sudden the game slows down and everyone is confident that the ball is going to be kept. Jaime is one of those special players. I'm not saying that everything he does is done slowly, but just the way he handles the ball, everything is so comfortable, and it looks so easy. You can't say that about a lot of players."
Does getting to MLS Cup re-vitalize you belief in the game and in this team? Does it feel like you can play for another ten years?
"Not ten years, maybe ten months (laugh). The profession I have is amazing. Even though there are times that are tough, I enjoy every single moment I step onto the field. As long as that's there, I want to do it as long as possible. It has nothing to do with all of a sudden I'm going to the final. Even in tough times I enjoy practicing or whatever it is. Whenever the ball rolls you have that feeling. As long as that's there, and people want to keep me around, I'll play."
What has Coach Nowak done to make this a good team?
"He came in at the beginning of the season, put his plan down, and we bought into it. It starts with the coach. He puts the players on the field and we've got to do certain things on the field. He's had a big, big impact on us."
Ryan Nelsen - defender
Watching Saturday's game against New England, were you concerned that maybe your season was going to end then?
"I was concerned two Saturday's ago, in the about the 62nd minute, when I got my second yellow card. It was a tough week, and I've got more gray hairs than I've ever had. I think it was more because I just didn't want the season to end. The boys did obviously very well."
How eager are you to play now?
"When you miss a game like that, it's obviously a joy. It's bitter-sweet because you wish you were out there experiencing it with them. It's not the same sitting and watching because you don't have the blood and sweat going. It was an amazing game. It's why you guys are here now because it was such a beauty."
What are your thoughts on Kansas City?
"We've beaten them 1-0, and they beaten us 1-0. We know their players. Since day one, even when Preki went down, I thought Kansas City would be good. They've got some dangerous players. They are very well coached, and very well organized. They've got some very good players at the back. It's going to be a great final. They deserve to be there, and I think we deserve to be there. I think it's perfect for MLS."
Olsen was saying that this is special because the game 'snuck up on the team'. Does it feel that way to you?
"Yes, it's kind of funny because halfway through the season I don't think realistically if anyone said we'd be here; I don't know how many people would've bid on that. I think the talent was always there, but we all of a sudden clicked. We had a great blow-out after the loss to Chicago away. Everybody pretty much said what they thought, and we got it off our chests. The coaches told us what we needed to win. Next thing you know, nine wins out of ten kind of thing, and you're in the final. It's funny how the sport goes."
What has Coach Nowak brought to the team?
"He's got a very cutthroat personality. It's a win at all costs type of thing, and it's rubbed off on the players. It's an extreme kind of confidence, not arrogance. He believes that we can win and beat anybody on the field when we get out there. It's just rubbed off on all the players, especially the young players. When you look at the penalty shootout last Saturday, you've got Brian Carroll, Alecko, Santino (Quaranta), Freddy Adu, all guys that are still under their mother's wing pretty much, they're in front of twenty-two thousand people knocking it in. I won't mention the two veterans that missed (laugh)."
Nick Rimando - goalkeeper
Can you talk about your level of physical conditioning that you went through the season?
"Right now, I'm a little beat up from Saturday's game. All in all, my knees, my health, and my head are one-hundred percent better. I'm a lot more confident in myself, and I think my teammates are a lot more confident in me. I think the main thing is that my head is in the game now. That comes from being healthy."
Everybody is saying the team came together after the Chicago game. Is that what you see as the turn-around with this team?
"The team started coming together halfway through the season. We had our ups, downs, individual players had their ups and downs, and we came together as one. After the Chicago game everyone let themselves be heard. We were just honest with each other. Now we're honest with each other on the field and in practice. We're being honest and working hard. Since then it's showed in the games on Saturday. We're playing as a team and working hard as a team."
What was it like to be on the bench, and when you were on the bench did you learn anything about yourself?
"There was hope that I was going play again, but Troy (Perkins) was playing great. We weren't getting the best results, so I think that hope was there. I knew that I just had to be confident, try my best, not pout, and hopefully something would come out of it. Luckily, I got my break and got back into the nets. . . . This was the first time I've ever sat on the bench. It was definitely hard watching the game, and watching somebody else in there. The guys and the coaches helped me a lot through it. Personally, I think I learned to be patient. . . . In the off-season it back-fired on me, how much I wanted to play. I had my first knee injury and I wanted to get back so bad. I came back too soon because I wanted to be in the first game. I wanted to play and get that feeling back. That's the part of being patient. I had to make sure both knees were healthy and my head was clear. I think you can see that it's helped a lot."
Alecko Eskandarian - forward
How do you feel going into MLS Cup?
"I feel good. Obviously this is what we've been working for all season long. We've still got one game left, but I feel confident. I think all of the guys in the locker room do too. We're going to go out take care of business like we've been doing all year long."
Last year was difficult. What are the differences between last year and this year for you personally?
"I think there are a lot of differences. This year we have a new, fresh attitude. Obviously the coaching staff changed. It's no secret that the young guys didn't get much of a chance last year, so for me and the other rookies, for us to sit on the bench and watch, for all of us we're excited to be here. We've played in big games before, so it's nothing new for us. At the same time, the guys get along so well, and we're such a family, we love going out there playing for each other and fighting for each other, and that's what it takes, that's the biggest difference."
Are you worried about this being the biggest game you have ever played?
"I never play worried. I think if you go into a game playing worried you're setting yourself up for failure. I'm extremely confident that we're going to go in there and play the way we've been playing. It might not be pretty, and it might not work out the way we planned it, but I know that we're going to fight to the end. Obviously it's never perfect. We're going to go through stretches where we're not clicking on offense or defense, maybe we're down a goal, or up a goal, but we're prepared for that. I think whoever is out there will be able to handle it."
You will be facing one of the more composed defenses in the league. How does that change your game plan?
"No, it doesn't. Obviously I go into every game knowing who I'm going against, and they have different strengths and weaknesses - I don't think I'm going to be challenging Jimmy Conrad for too many headers. I think I'm going to try to go at them with speed. They have an extremely good defense on that team, extremely organized team defense. At the same time, we've faced teams like that before. We've just got to find a way. We have a lot of versatility on this team - people that can fill different roles. We're not too worried how we're going to attack. I think they have to worry more about how we're going to attack them, than we're going to worry about how to attack them."
How important is it to get an early goal?
"It's always important. Anytime you get an early goal it makes a world of difference. At the same time, as we experienced last week, leads can come and go, especially in the final. Both teams are going to give everything they have for all ninety minutes. One second of not concentrating is going to cost you a goal. We've got to make sure that we put in a solid ninety minutes. It's not going to be just the first goal, or anything like that."
Freddy Adu - forward
With all the pressure of the signing, the salary, the competition from other players, how relieved are you to have proved yourself in Saturday's game, and now enter a championship game?
"It was great. At 15-years old not everybody gets the chance to play in a game like that. Knowing how important that game was, the game goes to penalty kicks, which just makes you feel . . . You learn a lot from it. I just hope the confidence level will carry me through the final game. . . . Luckily for me, I'm getting to experience this in my first year. It's giving me a lot of experience and hopefully I'll carry that forward throughout the rest of my career. We cannot ask for a better situation. I get a chance to be in a championship game, and I get to experience what it's like. Landon (Donovan) did the same thing, and look where he's at."
Throughout the year, how has Coach Nowak helped you through the ups and downs?
"He's been great. Immediately, I became just one of the guys. I came in and I didn't think it was going to be easy being one of the youngest, the media attention, the salary and all. I thought it was going to be tough to adjust to my own teammates, but that wasn't the case. There were certainly some problems, but they were solved quicker than I expected. I was able to concentrate on playing and becoming part of the team. It wasn't always good, but from the halfway point going forward I started playing my game. . . . He's done a great job. He's been more of a father figure. He was the one that saw me day-in and day-out, giving me advice. He was telling me, 'Just don't worry about anyone else and the media attention. The most important thing you do is out on the field and how you progress.' Coming in here there were a lot of people giving Peter a lot of crap about, 'Why isn't Freddy playing?' To be honest, I wasn't ready to play. He groomed me, found ways of getting me into position where I could succeed and where the team could succeed. From that, I started to build up a lot of confidence. It's helped me out a lot. If you look at how I'm playing now with the first four or five games of the season, there's a huge difference. That's mostly thanks to Peter."
When during the season did you feel that change in yourself?
"Around after the All-Star break. Obviously there was a lot of controversy about, 'Hey, did Freddy deserve to be an All-Star?' That was fun. I really want to get back there again. Maybe it wasn't the All-Star break, but the game before that, the Dallas game. I felt that I had the opportunity to step up and do something that game because everyone was hurt. I went in and created a goal. Even though I didn't score, I built up my confidence a lot. I sat down and I thought, 'It's the same game. If I play like it's my team and there's no tomorrow, then I should be fine.' I started playing like that and my teammates started trusting me that much more with the ball. Even when I lost the ball I started fighting to get it back. That played a big part because my teammates started trusting me and giving me the ball. My confidence level on the ball started growing. In order for me to play my game, I had to have a lot of confidence because I like to go at people, beat them off the dribble, and score or set up others to score. That really was a defining moment."
Do you feel spoiled?
"Not yet. Not yet. Maybe if we win the championship I'll feel spoiled a little bit."
Are you nervous?
"No, not really. I guess it's because I haven't been there before, so I'm not nervous. It's more that I just want to get out there and play."
John Dyson is a contributor to dcunited.com.