D.C. United and the New England Revolution played another hard fought battle this past weekend. It was not a goal scoring outburst like their previous two meetings, but it was another confrontation in which both teams looked very evenly matched.
Dating back to the beginning of the 2004 season, the teams have played seven times (including the playoffs), and each game that produced a winner was a one-goal decision. With two teams that match up so well together and always bring out the best in one another, the difference between winning and losing usually comes down to one key moment.
This time, the key moment favored New England. After D.C. United lost the ball near midfield, the Revolution started a quick counterattack. Pat Noonan had the ball in the attacking third near the right side of the penalty area. He put on a dazzling display of quick skills, went around Mike Petke and crossed to Taylor Twellman.
As Twellman was preparing to strike the ball from about seven yards away from the goal, he had plenty of space. Twellman's shot was not his best and Nick Rimando reacted well to make a reflex save. Unfortunately for D.C., the rebound went right back to Twellman, who, like all great goal poachers, seems to act like a ball magnet in the penalty area. Brandon Prideaux was about 10 inches away from blocking Twellman's second shot, but Twellman would not be denied twice and he scored the game's only goal.
After the goal, New England began to play very defensively. The team that has the highest powered offense in the league did not continue to push forward looking for more goals, but instead turned conservative to hang on to their slim lead. D.C. United fought hard for the final half-hour to try and get an equalizer, but there were few good chances for D.C. in the final moments.
Losing a close match on the road to a good team in your conference is not a terrible result. The problem for United was that they didn't play their best. The offense didn't create their usual amount of goal scoring chances and the midfield had trouble keeping possession. After a very good performance last weekend, United looked as though they had started to straighten out some of their early season problems. But against New England it was hard to remember how well the team had played just seven days earlier.
After next weekend, D.C. United will have completed one quarter of their 2005 schedule.
Last year, United didn't start playing their best until the final six weeks of the season, but it is dangerous to rely on late season turnarounds. Dema Kovalenko and Bryan Namoff both played their most minutes of the season in the last match, and they may be ready to play the full 90 next weekend. Having those two additional proven players is sure to give Peter Nowak some sleepless nights as he decides on the starting lineup.
D.C. United continues to search for consistency, but consistent play does not necessarily have to come from the same players. United's roster includes 20 different players who have started for the club at one time or another. That means that each match, there are nine reserves who could be starting. With only three substitutions, there is some risk involved when starting players who have not had much recent playing time on the first team. Nowak has a lot of respect for all of his players, and sometimes even a minor change in personnel can make a major impact on the field.
Since Nowak became the head coach of D.C. United, he (along with Tommy Soehn and Mark Simpson) has always managed the group of players very well. D.C. United started the same lineup in back-to-back matches for the first time this season on Saturday, but since the result was not the same as against Columbus, look for a few modifications next week as the Black-and-Red try to find the right combination of players to produce the right kind of results.
Tony Limarzi is a contributor to dcunited.com. He is also the voice of D.C. United soccer, calling all of the Black-and-Red's games live on WMET.