D.C. United got an historic goal from Jaime Moreno very early on -- then exploded for four goals after the halftime break, rolling to a 5-1 victory against the Columbus Crew on Wednesday evening at RFK Stadium.
Moreno became just the second player in MLS history to reach the 100-goal mark, converting a penalty kick eight minutes into the game to give United an early lead. After Joseph Ngwenya sent the teams into the break level, an own goal along with strikes from Josh Gros, Alecko Eskandarian and Lucio Filomeno broke the game open for United and consolidated their lead atop the Eastern Conference.
Facing dire straits in the goalkeeping department, Crew boss Sigi Schmid chose Dan Popik -- who played a total of 61 minutes in two substitute appearances for the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2003-04 -- ahead of Noah Palmer, who has yet to appear in a league game in his second season in MLS. It didn't take long for Popik -- who is now an assistant coach at North Carolina State University -- to become involved in the action.
The game got off to a blazing start with a flurry of action just five minutes in. After Eskandarian went to ground in search of a penalty call as he jostled with two Crew defenders right in front of Popik's goal, the visitors raced the other way and Eddie Gaven's cutback set up Ngwenya with a glorious chance from less than 10 yards out. But despite the inviting ball, the former Galaxy man scuffed his attempt badly.
Everyone in attendance was waiting for No. 99 to notch his historic 100th career MLS goal, and the moment arrived barely eight minutes into the contest when Moreno released his strike partner Eskandarian into space behind the Columbus back line.
The well-placed pass forced Popik to race off his line and yank down Eskandarian as he touched the ball past the 'keeper just inside the 18-yard box, provoking referee Jair Marrufo to point to the spot and issue a yellow card to Popik, who was actually lucky not to earn himself an early dismissal for the foul.
Moreno has taken United's penalty kicks for years, but this one was special and the crowd recognized the occasion with a deafening roar that peaked when the Bolivian drilled his shot into the lower right corner, making him only the second player in league history to reach the century mark, after Real Salt Lake's Jason Kreis.
With the hosts largely dominating possession, Columbus had been chasing the ball constantly, but when finally given a chance to string together a passing sequence 20 minutes after the kickoff, they immediately took advantage.
Sebastian Rozental and Jose Retiz orchestrated an assured move that pushed United back to the top of their own penalty box, giving Rozental space to curl a smart chip to the back post where Ngwenya caught Bobby Boswell napping and lashed a first-time volley past goalkeeper Troy Perkins to level the score at 1.
The goal quieted what had thus far been a festive RFK crowd and put smiles on the faces of the small but vocal Crew contingent that had traveled from central Ohio. But combined with the humid Washington evening, it also contributed to a letdown in energy as the first stanza wound down uneventfully.
With the teams still deadlocked despite controlling most of the first half, D.C. head coach Peter Nowak must have had some stern words for his charges at halftime, and United created a response just minutes after the restart.
Christian Gomez hit a bending corner kick to the near post that Eskandarian met with a flicked header across the face of goal. It looked to be bounding wide of the far post, but Crew defender Ezra Hendrickson extended his right foot instinctively and the ball nicked off him, off Popik's hands and into the net for an own goal.
Now behind again, the Crew rallied gamely to throw numbers forward and enjoyed a brief flurry of attacking possession before Moreno popped up to inspire his side again. Gaining possession near the left endline inside the visitors' area, the United captain cut onto his preferred right foot and bent a low drive through traffic that Popik saw late and could only slap away.
But a late-arriving Josh Gros was in the right place at the right time to slot home an easy finish into the empty net to give D.C. a two-goal cushion.
Second-half sub Ned Grabavoy came close to creating a crucial second goal for Columbus in the 65th minute with a low shot to the far post. Perkins could only parry the effort and the rebound bounced up temptingly, but with Ngwenya closing in for an easy tap-in, United defender Bryan Namoff rescued his netminder with a timely lunging clearance.
But all the Crew's pressure only gave D.C.'s attack the space they crave for quick counterattacks, and that style was perfectly demonstrated in the 71st minute after Gaven's close-range shot was saved by Perkins, then cleared straight to Gomez by Boswell from his own goal area.
Standing in acres of space in his own half, the Argentinean spotted Eskandarian's angled run and delivered an immaculate 60-yard through ball directly into the striker's path, giving him the simplest of finishes past a disconsolate Popik for United's fourth tally of the night.
The Crew's misery deepened just a few minutes later when Ngwenya's attempted clearance of a Freddy Adu corner kick caromed off his shin and fell right to Filomeno, who turned and slammed his first goal of the year to make it 5-1.
Both sides were glad to hear Marrufo's final whistle, as United tightened their grip on first place in the Eastern Conference while Columbus went home to lick its wounds after the four-goal defeat, matching the largest in club history.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.