WASHINGTON - Saturday night's much-anticipated showdown between Major League Soccer's top teams turned out to be a canny, calculated affair, as FC Dallas kept their attacking ambitions in check to make sure D.C. United's potent attack was held to its lowest output of the season so far.
"It was very tight in the middle," said United head coach Peter Nowak. "Every time we played the wings, we had no space in the middle. ... We're supposed to know that, and read the game and adjust the situation."
In the end it was a tale of two long-range drives, as Ben Olsen and Ronnie O'Brien traded first-half piledrivers for a 1-1 halftime score, and the visitors took advantage of a sparkling performance by Argentinean goalkeeper Dario Sala to safeguard a road point that was clearly adequate for Colin Clarke and his men.
"Yeah, you could tell as soon as they tied it up," said United winger Josh Gros, who had a goal disallowed by referee Mark Geiger just after the hour mark. "They were happy with a tie; even the goalie was wasting time in the first half. They were being smart, playing on the road at our place - we usually win at our place."
It was Gros who teed up Olsen in the 17th minute after Alecko Eskandarian's run made space at the top of the Dallas 18-yard box, and the veteran midfielder gave his World Cup prospects yet another boost with a surprising left-footed shot that skipped past Sala and into the side netting.
"I should've been a lefty, I think - after all these years, maybe I would've scored more goals," said Olsen. "Josh laid me a nice little layoff, and I just tried to get good contact on it, some good wood. Fortunately it went in the right corner."
U.S. national team coach and former United boss Bruce Arena was on hand as the Black-and-Red honored their "Decade's Best XI," which included Arena as well as current stars Olsen, Christian Gomez, Jaime Moreno and Nick Rimando - and the United brain trust made sure Olsen didn't forget it.
"The coaching staff has been killing me," he admitted. "All week they were telling me, 'the big man's going to be here, you better play good.'"
But D.C. seemed to lose focus after his goal, and when Dallas dangerman O'Brien was given too much space in the 41st minute, he let loose with one of his signature right-footed blasts, giving goalkeeper Troy Perkins no chance.
"You know, he hit it well, with some pace," said Perkins, "and the ball actually started about two feet outside the post and just came right back in. Josh (Gros) tried to close him down, he just didn't get there in time, and when you give time to a quality player like that, he's going to finish it. He put it in a great spot."
Nowak was more impressed with his side's response after the break, but lamented their inability to deliver the knockout blow.
"They really picked up the tempo, the rhythm, in the second half," he said. "We won a lot of 50-50 balls, (had) a lot of bodies in the midfield and we created chances. I hope that next week we're going to work on the finishing ... the last part, the concentration and the finishing wasn't very good."
Gros turned in his usual energetic performance on the flank, and seemed to have won the game for D.C. when he turned home the rebound after Sala palmed away Bobby Boswell's header from a corner in the 62nd minute. But to the disappointment of United's vocal supporters at RFK Stadium, he was deemed offside.
"I thought I was on, but obviously the ref didn't," he said. "He made his call, and I just feel bad for the fans, because they had to come out and see a tie."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.