D.C. United took a vital step towards the playoffs Saturday afternoon with a 3-0 victory over the Dallas Burn, paced by two tallies from team-leading goal-scorer Alecko Eskandarian.
Although they looked dangerous at times, the second half ejection of Oscar Pareja put the Burn behind the eight ball and D.C. capitalized mercilessly, dominating possession and finishing their opportunities.
On the forefront of everyone's mind was the three-year anniversary of the September 11 terror attacks, which were commemorated with a pregame ceremony and a memorial patch on D.C.'s jerseys.
United star Freddy Adu said afterwards, "We're one of the cities that got hit on that day, and what a great way to get a win for all those people, all those firemen and others who were there. It's great for us and great for the city, and we're glad we got the win."
With only one win over their last eight games, United badly needed a positive result in order to keep pace in a helter-skelter Eastern Conference race that seems destined to go down to the wire.
Buoyed by an enthusiastic home crowd of 13,024, United was quicker off the mark, controlling play and probing the Burn defense. Dallas, no doubt remembering their May trip to RFK Stadium in 2003 -- when Dema Kovalenko broke Ronnie O'Brien's leg in a hard but clean challenge -- were physical from the start.
Tensions threatened to boil over almost immediately, when Kovalenko and O'Brien's confrontation in the second minute set off pushing and shoving that resulted in Alecko Eskandarian getting knocked down, and Mike Petke earning the first of many cards given out by referee Ricardo Salazar.
United's dominance was rewarded just before halftime, as Jaime Moreno combined with Ben Olsen to set up Eskandarian for an easy finish that sent D.C. into the locker room up 1-0.
Almost immediately after the restart, Ben Olsen and Pareja rose into the air to joust for a header, and the Colombian's elbow found Olsen's temple, prompting Salazar to issue a red card for violent conduct. Burn fans might feel that the judgment was harsh, but the belligerent tone of the game likely made the decision unavoidable.
"It was a good first half," said Burn goalkeeper Jeff Cassar. "We don't think it was a red card. It kind of [hurts] that that happened, but D.C. did well with their chances. They were probably better than us today. Mainly all their goals came from us falling asleep in certain spots, and them taking advantage."
From then on, Dallas was forced to sit back and pack numbers on defense while looking for opportunities to counterattack. United was content to knock the ball about, and eventually all their possession paid off.
In the 82nd minute, Moreno was again the architect of a flowing D.C. attack, dispossessing Burn substitute Milton Reyes and setting up Eskandarian for his second goal. Second-half sub Freddy Adu capped a jubilant evening for the United faithful with his composed finish past Cassar two minutes later, with Moreno notching his third assist.
Eskandarian, in his first game back after a two-week layoff due to an ankle sprain, revealed afterwards that he was still feeling the effects of the injury.
"I don't think I had the best game today," he said. "My touches were off a little, my fitness isn't really there yet. I just wanted to concentrate on getting myself into good spots. With (my ankle) taped this tight, I don't feel any pain, but I don't have much mobility with it, either. Yesterday in practice I was striking the ball, and it just didn't feel right. To be honest with you, I was worried about it."
Eskandarian also felt the early impact of Pareja's elbow during the first-half altercation.
"I have no idea what happened, all I know is I got nailed on the side of my head and I went down," Eskandarian said. "I prayed that no one punched me, because if they did, there would be something going on the next time we played. But I'm not going to make too big a deal about it. The game's over now, we won 3-0."
Teen phenom Adu was also in high spirits after scoring his fourth goal of the year.
"It felt good. It felt great," he said. "The second half of the season, I've had a lot of chances, but the 'keepers have been making some absolutely brilliant saves. When you're able to get one like that, it just feels great, it's a huge confidence booster."
For now, D.C. have leapfrogged the Chicago Fire and retaken third place in the East, while last-place Dallas is now in danger of losing touch with their rivals out West.
When asked if his team can still reach the postseason, Cassar said, "We're hoping so. We've got a lot of head-to-head battles with (conference rivals), two with L.A., one with San Jose. We just can't keep letting points slip away like this if we want to have a chance."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.