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Playoff push the focus of Atlantic Cup

- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 30, 2008

Intra-league rivalries have bloomed over the years in Major League Soccer. There's the Rocky Mountain Cup between the Colorado Rapids and Real Salt Lake, the Texas shootout between the Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas and the SuperClasico between Chivas USA and the Los Angeles Galaxy.

But the oldest rivalry began in 1996 with D.C. United and the then New York MetroStars. In 2002, the series officially became known as the Atlantic Cup. United has won five of the six Atlantic Cups, including last year's. Both teams have traded 4-1 home wins this season and Saturday's game at RFK Stadium will decide who gets the trophy. Should the teams tie, United will keep the Cup by virtue of being the holders.

"Any rivalry we have in the Eastern Conference, every game is a big game," United coach Tom Soehn said.

United and New York are tied with 31 points for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, six points behind leaders New England and Columbus. Winning the Atlantic Cup is nice, but the real prize in Saturday's game is to secure three points and a place in the playoffs.

"Every point is needed because there are a lot of points taken in the East right now," Soehn said. "Forty points used to be enough [to get into playoffs], but this year I don't think so."

The top three teams in each conference and the next best two teams, regardless of conference, play in the postseason.

Battled on the Internet and even in parking lots by fans, the United-Red Bulls rivalry reached a crescendo in 2006 when United striker Alecko Eskandarian celebrated a goal at Giants Stadium by drinking a can of Red Bull and spitting it out. Eskandarian was fined $250 for his actions.

"The game is huge," United player Devon McTavish said. "We are tied on points - neck and neck - and both on the verge of the playoffs, so it's going to be intense."

The Red Bulls come to town riding a five-game unbeaten streak led by Colombian star Juan Pablo Angel, who has scored six goals in his last six games.

"Angel eats everything up in the box and is a phenomenal finisher," McTavish said. "We have some ideas on how to deal with him, but he's a good player."

United is unbeaten at home against the Red Bulls since October 2005.

On the horizon there's good news for United. Playmaking midfielder Marcelo Gallardo is on his way back to full fitness following hernia surgery but probably will not see minutes against New York.

"He's getting closer, but game fitness is an issue," Soehn said.

Since his injury, United has had a mixed bag of results forcing Soehn to experiment with numerous midfield formations.

Veteran midfielder Ben Olsen, who has battled with an ankle injury all season and has played in just one game, is participating in full-training programs.

"He is stretching one to two training sessions together," Soehn said.

Gallardo and Olsen are listed as questionable.

United is still without midfielder Fred (hamstring) and defender Gonzalo Peralta (hamstring).

Notes - Coach Jorge Barcellos, who led Brazil's women's national team to a silver medal in the 2008 Olympics, will become coach of the St. Louis-based Women's Professional Soccer team, which starts play next spring. ...

Tickets for the U.S. men's national team World Cup qualifier against Cuba at RFK Stadium on Oct. 11 go on sale Thursday. ...

For fans of Spain's La Liga, Gol TV, which airs live games, is now only provided digitally on DirecTV.