D.C. United completed its return to glory Sunday, winning its fourth Major League Soccer championship in nine seasons with a wildly entertaining 3-2 victory against the Kansas City Wizards at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif.
United's triumph in MLS Cup 2004 before 25,797 at the Home Depot Center was its first since 1999, when it capped a run of appearances in the first four MLS title games with a then-third championship.
Alecko Eskandarian scored in the 19th and 23rd minutes as United used three goals in an seven-minute span midway through the first half to overcome an early Jose Burciaga goal, then held off the Wizards after being reduced to 10 players early in the second half followed by a Josh Wolff penalty kick.
United dictated huge swaths of action through a posssession game expertly driven by Jaime Moreno and solid defensive play, led by center back Ryan Nelsen and holding midfielder Brian Carroll.
The victory gave former Polish international Peter Nowak a championship in his rookie season as D.C. head coach after he had led the Chicago Fire to the 1998 MLS Cup title in his first season in the league as a player, the first coach in nearly a half-century in U.S. sport to win a title within a couple of years after retiring as a player.
United also won championships in 1996 and 1997, but the team faded following its '99 title, finishing last in its division or conference -- and missing the playoffs -- in 2000, 2001 and 2002, then slipping into postseason as the No. 4 Eastern team last season before dropping two two-goal decisions to the Fire.
Kansas City, which was seeking its second MLS Cup title to go with a 2000 crown, grabbed an early lead on a blistering Burciaga strike, but D.C. took charge with Eskandarian's goals and an own goal that provided a 3-1 halftime advantage.
The game was not without controversy. Two hand balls -- one called, the other missed -- were critical in the outcome. One enabled D.C. to take the lead, the other cost it Dema Kovalenko and allowed Kansas City to pull within a goal with more than a half-hour remaining.
Burciaga struck in the sixth minute, taking a Nelsen clearance on his chest, racing through a gaping channel to his left, then firing left-footed from 30 yards -- the ball skipping once past goalkeeper Nick Rimando and nestling just inside the right post -- as Christian Gomez stepped up to confront him.
K.C.'s advantage lasted just 13 minutes. Carroll, deep on the right flank, cut inside against Wizards midfielder Diego Gutierrez and, after several strides, threaded a ball to Eskandarian inside the semicircle.
Eskandarian, with Nick Garcia on his back, turned right to open space, then ripped the ball past Bo Oshoniyi and into the ceiling of the net.
Eskandarian struck again four minutes later, taking advantage of the Wizards' poor decision-making and a hand ball that wasn't seen by referee Michael Kennedy. Jimmy Conrad was under pressure from Eskandarian as soon as he received a throw-in from the left, and the D.C. forward leapt as Conrad tried to clear the ball.
It struck Eskandarian in the forearm, and bounced into empty space on the left. He ran it down and slid the ball past Oshoniyi inside the right post.
The Wizards argued unsuccessfully for the goal to be called back, but neither Kennedy nor assistant Kermit Quisenberry had viewed the infraction.
The third goal arrived in the 26th minute. Earnie Stewart fed Moreno up the right wing with a free kick, and Moreno returned the ball as Stewart raced past.
The U.S. World Cup veteran beat Conrad to the end line, the crossed to Eskandarian, who was making a run in front of the net, looking for the hat trick. Defender Alex Zotinca, in front of Eskandarian, got to the ball first, an unlucky deflection off his body depositing it into his own net at the near post.
Kansas City, happy for D.C. to control the ball away from its area, pushed forward in the second half. It paid off in the 56th minute, when Conrad got off two shots in the United box. Rimando punched away the first, and the second was slapped away by Kovalenko as it roared toward the net.
Kennedy at first awarded the Wizards a corner kick, but Quisenberry quickly called him aside. Kennedy then gave a penalty kick and sent off Kovalenko for denying the obvious goal-scoring opportunity.
Josh Wolff converted the penalty kick in the 58th minute to cut the deficit to 3-2.
D.C. did an admirable job shutting off the Wizards the rest of the way. Josh Gros and Brandon Prideaux were brought on to strengthen the defense, and 15-year-old phenom Freddy Adu came on in the 65th minute, after Eskandarian limped off the field with a leg injury.
Kansas City brought on Igor Simutenkov at halftime, then added rookie Matt Taylor in the 66th minute and Diego Walsh in the 82nd to add to its attack.
Burciaga and Taylor came closest to tying the score, Burciaga firing wide after beating Ben Olsen on the left in the 81st minute and Taylor shooting through the goalmouth three minutes into stoppage time.
But United doggedly held on, completely their return to the top of the MLS ladder with their record-setting triumph.
D.C. United (4-0-0) vs. Kansas City Wizards (2-2-0)
November 14, 2004 -- The Home Depot Center
KC -- Jose Burciaga Jr. 1 (unassisted) 6
DC -- Alecko Eskandarian 3 (Brian Carroll 1) 19
DC -- Alecko Eskandarian 4 (unassisted) 23
DC -- own goal (Alex Zotinca) 26
KC -- Josh Wolff 1 (penalty kick) 58
D.C. United -- Nick Rimando, Bryan Namoff, Ryan Nelsen, Mike Petke, Earnie Stewart (Brandon Prideaux 82), Brian Carroll, Christian Gomez (Joshua Gros 59), Ben Olsen, Dema Kovalenko, Jaime Moreno, Alecko Eskandarian (Freddy Adu 65).
Substitutes Not Used: Ezra Hendrickson, Tim Lawson, Troy Perkins, Santino Quaranta, David Stokes, Jason Thompson.
TOTAL SHOTS: 8 (Alecko Eskandarian 3, Christian Gomez 3); SHOTS ON GOAL: 4 (Alecko Eskandarian 2); FOULS: 15 (Earnie Stewart 3); OFFSIDES: 2 (Alecko Eskandarian 1, Ben Olsen 1); CORNER KICKS: 4 (Christian Gomez 2); SAVES: 4 (Nick Rimando 2)
Kansas City Wizards -- Bo Oshoniyi, Alex Zotinca (Diego Walsh 82), Jimmy Conrad, Nick Garcia, Jose Burciaga Jr., Khari Stephenson (Igor Simutenkov 46), Diego Gutierrez, Kerry Zavagnin, Jack Jewsbury (Matt Taylor 66), Josh Wolff, Davy Arnaud.
Substitutes Not Used: Justin Detter, Francisco Gomez, Taylor Graham, Will Hesmer, Tony Meola, Shavar Thomas.
TOTAL SHOTS: 10 (4 tied with 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 6 (Jimmy Conrad 2); FOULS: 13 (Davy Arnaud 3, Diego Gutierrez 3); OFFSIDES: 1 (Davy Arnaud 1); CORNER KICKS: 5 (Jose Burciaga Jr. 3); SAVES: 2 (Bo Oshoniyi 2)
KC -- Diego Gutierrez (caution; Tackle from Behind) 33
DC -- Earnie Stewart (caution; Reckless Foul) 55
DC -- Dema Kovalenko (ejection; Denied Goal Scoring Opportunity (Handball)) 57
DC -- Bryan Namoff (caution; Delaying a Restart) 72
DC -- Ben Olsen (caution; Dissent) 89
Referee: Michael Kennedy
Referee's Assistants: Nathan Clement; Kermit Quisenberry
4th Official: Abiodun Okulaja
Time of Game: 2:04