One of Major League Soccer's hottest rivalries entered a new chapter on Sunday afternoon as D.C. United played host to the new-look New York Red Bulls at RFK Stadium in a fascinating encounter that gives both sides plenty to consider as they open the 2006 campaign.
A masterful free kick from Youri Djorkaeff opened the scoring after a quarter of an hour, although United coach Peter Nowak claimed that goalkeeper Troy Perkins was obstructed by two Red Bulls players in an offside position on the play.
"I just do not understand how you cannot call offside when they are distracting the view in front of the 'keeper, with two guys standing in front of him," said Nowak afterwards. "We talked a lot in the offseason about the impact calls, and I think the game changed (after) the first goal. But it was good to see the boys react and respond in this way -- I was very proud of them."
Djorkaeff's tally was followed closely by a Perkins goalkeeping error that gifted Edson Buddle his first goal in Gotham, giving the visitors a 2-0 first-half lead. But some halftime adjustments from United turned the game in their favor, keyed by the introduction of striker Alecko Eskandarian, and the Black-and-Red clawed their way back to earn a share of the spoils thanks to goals from Eskandarian and defender Facundo Erpen.
"They came out probably a little bit sharper than we did, and they got some good goals," said United midfielder Ben Olsen, who set up Erpen for the equalizer. "But on top of that, they were beating us in the air, they were beating us on second balls -- they just had a little bit more in the early going.
"Fortunately, we came out in the second half and put some good stuff together. We changed up the formation and moved the ball quicker, in and out, side to side, isolated some guys. Esky did a great job of coming in and giving us a spark."
Eskandarian has endured a miserable stretch of injuries and bad luck since his MVP performance in United's 2004 MLS Cup triumph, but on Sunday he put those bad memories behind him with a lively performance capped by a well-taken goal.
"I think there's 10 months' worth of frustration behind that shot," said the University of Virginia product. "It feels good. It's just good to be back with the guys, in the locker room and part of the team."
Even though Freddy Adu had performed well in an advanced left wing position in the first half, Nowak moved the teenager into a central role and placed Eskandarian in that spot for the second stanza, looking to isolate Red Bulls rookie right back Marvell Wynne.
"When Esky came in, they wanted him closer to the goal, but also to go at Marvell a little bit," explained Adu. "I moved into the middle with Benny (Olsen) and (Brian Carroll) behind, and it gave me a little bit more room to run at people."
Nowak hailed his side's resiliency in erasing the deficit, but noted the clear opportunities for Gros and Adu that went begging -- and which could have earned his team the win they felt they deserved.
"We still have to work on some things, because we're playing too slow, too predictable," he said. "There were a couple of good chances, with Josh in the first half, right off the bat -- we have to score from this position. And Freddy just before the half -- these are some crucial plays. If we go in 2-1 at halftime, it's a different story. But the boys responded very well, and I'm happy with how they played."
Despite being denied by Tony Meola on that one-on-one situation in the 42nd minute, Adu played with the imagination and confidence that D.C. needed in the absence of suspended playmaker Christian Gomez, offering a promising opening to what could be his breakout year in MLS.
"We wish we would have gotten the three points, but it was slow start from us. I guess there were a lot of nerves," said Adu. "We settled down in the second half and played our game. It was a great comeback."
charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.