It's amazing how quickly everything can change for a professional sports team. At 7:30 p.m. on Saturday evening, D.C. United was prepared to kickoff their match against the Columbus Crew with high hopes of continuing their surge for the playoffs. By 9:30 p.m., D.C. had another tough road loss to swallow, an injury to their team MVP and suspensions to two additional key players. But even though the game was not what United had hoped for, the team's progress continues.
After only 10 minutes of the match with Columbus, United fell behind when Tony Sanneh headed in a free kick. United did not get discouraged, but continued to play hard after falling behind. They had a lot of possession in the attacking third and looked able to get an equalizer. But only 10 minutes after conceding the goal, D.C. had another setback.
As Columbus was moving into the attacking third on a counter-attack, Crew forward Kyle Martino was attacking one-on-two trying to get into the penalty box. It looked like he lost the ball, and then threw himself down just outside the area. Instead of possession for United, the referee awarded Martino a free kick. United's team captain Ryan Nelsen ran over to the official to argue the call and was instantaneously slapped with a yellow card for dissent. Five minutes after Nelsen went into the book United suffered yet another blow.
Jaime Moreno injured his left hamstring after barely 20 minutes. He limped off the field got some treatment from D.C. United trainer Brian Goodstein and tried to walk it off. It didn't take Moreno long to realize he was done for the evening and Peter Nowak was forced to make a substitution. Earnie Stewart entered the match and United continued to push forward. The Crew defenders were back on their heels, and Alecko Eskandarian would have tied the match if it hadn't been for a great save from Jon Busch. As the match approached halftime things went from bad to worse for D.C.
Columbus tried to begin another counter-attack in the 44th minute. Edson Buddle turned down the left sideline around Bryan Namoff, Nelsen was the second defender in the area. When Buddle moved past Namoff right along the sideline, Nelsen tried to knock the ball out of play. Nelsen's challenge was late and he fouled Buddle. The referee ruled the foul to be reckless and issued Nelsen his second yellow card. Besides the difficulties for the remainder of the match, United will have to cope without their team captain in their next game.
Heading into the locker room down by a goal on the road with only 10 players and without their best attacking player, D.C. United could very easily have thrown in the towel. But in the second half they continued to show great heart and determination. Playing with the man advantage Columbus seemed very content to just keep possession and force United to chase the ball. The problem for the Crew was that they created very few chances using these tactics. Even down a man, United was the better team in the second half with a few near misses that would have earned D.C. a draw. Columbus had a few clear chances to ice the game with the second goal, but their finishing left them wanting. In the final moments, United kept playing very aggressively and were unfairly punished once again.
After D.C. United lost the ball in the attacking third, Eskandarian was battling with Sanneh trying to regain possession. The two were pulling and tugging each other with Sanneh finally taking possession. As Sanneh was moving towards midfield, Eskandarian stumbled backwards and fell to the ground, landing with his back on the legs of Sanneh. The clear foul was whistled against Eskandarian, but the referee also gave Eskandarian a yellow card.
Eskandarian entered the match on the verge of a caution point suspension, and the yellow card makes him unavailable for the match next weekend. With 10 players United couldn't find the equalizing goal vs. Columbus, but the style of play and effort was exactly what United wanted. After the match, coach Nowak said that he couldn't have asked any more of his team. Despite the loss, D.C. United are still on the right track.
So, in the most critical match of the season this coming Saturday at the MetroStars, D.C. United has their work cut out for them. They will play without Ryan Nelsen, without Alecko Eskandarian, and possibly without Jaime Moreno in a match that is imperative if D.C. United are to get home field advantage in round one of the playoffs. Having the second leg of the first round of the playoffs at RFK Stadium would be a huge lift for a team that has played so well at home.
As expected, with postseason seeding hanging in the balance, D.C. United will confront their archrivals twice in the final three matches of the season. Next weekend promises to be another epic battle in the storied rivalry of D.C. and the MetroStars and, in all likelihood, it will be a preview for round one of the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Tony Limarzi provides live match commentary for all D.C. United games in English on WMET. He also contributes a column to dcunited.com, which runs every Monday.