United catapults into first

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When it came to set pieces, D.C. United was perfect Saturday night at RFK Stadium.

Jaime Moreno converted a penalty kick, Christian Gomez scored a stunning goal on a free kick and goalie Josh Wicks dived brilliantly to stop Brian McBride’s penalty kick as United doused the Chicago Fire 2-1.

With the win, United (5-2-7, 22 points) overtook the Fire for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and stayed unbeaten in eight home matches this season. Playing without Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Chicago (5-3-6, 21 points) suffered its first loss on the road this season.

“At home, we always have to win - whatever it takes,” Gomez said. “Tonight we beat the conference leaders, so we are feeling good about ourselves to go on the road and play the three games coming up.”

The 18,369 fans on hand, United’s biggest crowd of the year, witnessed a fast-paced and thrilling game that could easily have been a goalfest. While Wicks could do nothing to stop Marco Pappa’s tying goal, his other efforts clearly made him the man of the match. United, it seems, finally found its starting goalie.

“Obviously, the guy shooting always is in favor, but Josh not only made that save [on McBride] but really had a fantastic day today,” coach Tom Soehn said. “He really established himself as a presence in the box and came up with some really good plays.”

With Luciano Emilio suspended after receiving a red card June 4, United went with a strike force of Moreno and Chris Pontius. Santino Quaranta and Fred played on the flanks, while Rodney Wallace moved into the holding midfielder role.

United took the lead when it was awarded a penalty kick by referee Baldomero Toledo after a seemingly innocent collision between Pontius and Chicago goalie Jon Busch after Pontius had already gotten off his shot. Moreno converted the kick in the 24th minute for his fifth goal of the year and 127th all-time, most in MLS history.

Chicago was back in the game nine minutes later when Pappa sidestepped defender Marc Burch and let fly a blistering left-footer from 17 yards out.

United later took a blow when Moreno pulled up with muscle spasms in the 38th minute and was replaced by Ange N’Silu.

Three minutes later, United regained the lead when Gomez curled a free kick over the Fire’s defensive wall with a right-footed shot for his second goal of the season.

“I saw the goalie was going for the other post and I saw that there was space, and luckily the shot went in,” Gomez said.

The second half began with Wicks making a string of big saves. First he stopped close-range efforts from Wilman Conde and Patrick Nyarko. Then he denied McBride’s penalty kick with a fine dive to his right after the referee deemed defender Dejan Jakovic had pulled on Nyarko’s shirt.

United could have padded its lead, but Busch somehow stopped N’Silu’s shot, and then Gomez’s shot hit the crossbar. The Fire responded with John Thorrington also striking the crossbar on a free kick.

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