A D.C. United season that began with so much promise was in danger of ending in bitter disappointment.
The dominant New York Red Bulls led by a goal heading toward the final minutes of last night's playoff game on a crisp night at RFK Stadium. The two-game, total-goals series was tied, and a 30-minute overtime period and possible shootout loomed to determine which team would advance to MLS's Eastern Conference final.
That was before Christian Gomez delivered his latest finishing act. The likely MLS MVP sent United into the next round with a blast from 10 yards out in the 86th minute that tied the game 1-1 and gave United a 2-1 series edge in total goals.
"Once again it was Christian to the rescue," United forward Freddy Adu said. "It was one of the worst games we have played since I have been with D.C. United. We were horrendous. We got by, but we can't rely on playing like this again."
The Red Bulls, who brought a losing record into the playoffs, outshot United 13-6 and were the aggressors from the start. Nonetheless, United moved on and as top seed will play host for Sunday's single-game conference final against New England for a berth in the MLS Cup.
Moreno's game-winner came after a floating feed from Joshua Gros and an unofficial assist from Bobby Boswell. After Gros made a nice crossing pass, Boswell appeared to go for the ball in front of the goal before the Argentinean forward took over with his mouth and then his foot.
"He called, 'Bob-bay, Bob-bay,' " said Boswell, who flailed to the ground in front of the goalie. "If it came down to me or him scoring, I know who I would put my money on. I just got out of the way. If I [hadn't], I would have looked like a moron."
The Red Bulls, despite playing without injured star Youri Djorkaeff, were aggressors from the beginning but didn't even the series until the 70th minute on Amado Guevara's free kick from just outside the penalty box on the right side. The Red Bulls captain made a perfect feed to Josmer Altidore in front of the goal, and the forward spun a header past goalie Troy Perkins (four saves) and into the lower left corner.
Of United's season seemingly being in danger, Perkins conceded, "You had the thought in the back of your head. But we have a lot of veterans on this team, and we came through."
Thanks to Gomez, the 32-year old who had a team-high 14 goals and 11 assists in the regular season.
"We didn't want to go [to] penalty kicks. We didn't want to go into overtime," said United coach Peter Nowak, whose team was knocked out in the first round by Chicago last season. "It really doesn't matter [how you win]. The goal was to advance to the conference final."
And that was accomplished even if little else was. United, which came into the postseason after winning only two of its last 13 games, is still alive for its second league title in three seasons. But a team that many consider a heavy favorite to win a fifth MLS title barely advanced past an opponent that won just nine regular-season games.
"Maybe it is good that we are going into the conference final as a underdog," Nowak said.
The comment raised a few eyebrows, and the coach was asked whether he really saw the Revolution as the favorite.
"After today, yes," he said.
Red Bulls coach Bruce Arena, the former U.S. national and United coach, smiled when he heard the comment.
"Then he should bet on New England," Arena said, clearly not buying it. "He should take all his money and bet on New England."
New York missed numerous opportunities to take the lead earlier. In the 61st minute, Josmer took a cross, but his shot from eight yards bounced off the right goal.
United finally mounted its first serious attack in the 67th minute. Adu launched a shot from just inside the left side of the penalty box, and Red Bulls goalie Jon Conway (one save) blocked the ball to Jaime Moreno on the right side. The Bolivian striker made some nifty moves before shifting a pass to the middle to Alecko Eskandarian, whose straightaway shot from 12 yards bounced off top of the crossbar and out of play.
But eventually things worked out for the home team thanks to Moreno's game -- and perhaps season -- saving goal.
"Today the soccer wasn't the greatest," Perkins said. "Fortunately, we are still alive."