- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 26, 2003

Finally.

After failing to clinch a playoff spot in each of it’s last two games, D.C. United, thanks to Hristo Stoitchkov, is headed to Major League Soccer’s postseason for the first time in four years.

Stoitchkov scored the equalizer in the 57th minute as United tied the Kansas City Wizards 1-1 last night in the regular-season finale before an announced crowd of 19,797 at RFK Stadium.

With the tie, United (10-11-9) finds itself stumbling into the playoffs with an 0-3-3 mark in its final six games. However, the tie eliminates the Columbus Crew from playoff contention and will send United to play the Eastern Conference champion Chicago Fire in a two-game first-round playoff series Saturday at RFK and then at Chicago’s Soldier Field on Nov.9. The winner will advance on goal differential.

The game also had playoff implications for the Wizards with home-field advantage on the line in the playoffs. With the Dallas Burn’s 4-3 victory over the Colorado Rapids last night, the Wizards clinched home-field advantage for the semifinal round of the playoffs.

Like much of United’s season, last night’s game wasn’t pretty, but Stoitchkov, the team’s oldest player at 38, brought leadership to the field after a dreadful first half.

“This is another chapter in Stoitchkov’s history,” coach Ray Hudson said. “Cometh thee hour, cometh thee man.”

Apparently, Hudson didn’t feel that way before the game. Prior to the start, the fiery Stoitchkov and the coach exchanged words because Stoitchkov wasn’t in the starting lineup.

“Ask the coach,” Stoitchkov replied when asked how he felt opening the game on United’s bench.

Stoitchkov came on at halftime for ineffective midfielder Eliseo Quintanilla and the time on the bench seemed to inspire Stoitchkov.

Desperate for a goal, United switched from a 4-4-2 formation to a 3-5-2 at the break and it seemed to bring the United offense to life.

United midfielder Bryan Namoff started the play that led to Stoitchkov’s goal when he charged out of the midfield and played the ball into space for midfielder Bobby Convey. Convey carried the ball into the left corner and crossed to the far right post.

The ball skimmed off Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad’s forehead, which kept goalie Tony Meola from getting to it. Stoitchkov, who was unmarked at the post, simply nodded the ball in from point-blank range to tie the game at 1. It was Stoitchkov’s fifth goal of the season and Convey’s first assist.

“I’m 38 years old, I know where to move on the field,” Stoitchkov said. “It’s a typical play of our team looking for the cross, knowing that Ronald Cerritos is very good in the air. I just positioned myself at the back post to see if there was a cross and that’s the way it went.”

According to suspended United midfielder Dema Kovalenko, last night’s game was for Crew forward Brian McBride. Kovalenko said McBride laughed in his face last week after the latter converted a penalty kick in the 90th minute and lifted the Crew to a 2-1 lead at the end of regulation.

“Tell Brian McBride, ‘good luck in your game tomorrow, but have a nice vacation,’” Kovalenko said. “He’s an idiot.”

Kansas City’s resident graybeard provided Kansas City with its first goal. Preki, who at 40 is the oldest player in the league, put United in a hole with a 17th-minute goal.

Wizards defender Carey Talley played a ball out of the midfield to Preki at the top of the United box. Preki touched the ball once to his left and then cut back right between United defenders Mike Petke and Ryan Nelsen. He then sent a right-footed blast to the right post. It was his third goal in three games against United this season.

Despite being the league’s old man, Preki has had an MVP-like season. He virtually wrapped up the league’s scoring crown with 12 goals and 17 assists. The Fire’s Ante Razov needs a hat trick in today’s match to tie Preki’s points lead. Preki, the league’s all-time leading scorer, would become the only MLS player to capture the league’s scoring title twice. He led the league in 1997 with 41 points.

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