Saturday, November 6, 2004

Rookie midfielder Joshua Gros’ first big challenge this year was making D.C. United’s roster. Now, after 31 Major League Soccer games, he’s being asked to disrupt the service of the league’s No. 4 career assists leader.

Tonight’s Eastern Conference final at RFK Stadium won’t entirely turn on the job Gros does on New England Revolution midfielder Steve Ralston, but silencing him certainly would be a huge step in United advancing to next week’s MLS Cup in Carson, Calif.

“Josh has done great all year for us,” United midfielder Ben Olsen said. “Ralston is a great player — the best outside midfielder this league has ever had. [But even] saying that, I like Josh Gros, and I think he’s a great player.”

With starting left-flank midfielder Dema Kovalenko suspended for tonight’s game because of an accumulation of yellow cards, the 22-year-old Gros finds himself in the biggest game of his brief pro career.

Gros, whom United selected in the fourth round (34th overall) out of Rutgers in January’s MLS SuperDraft, has been one of the team’s biggest surprises with one goal and four assists. But his work ethic and hard-nosed play will get the ultimate test out wide against Ralston.

The veteran has collected 96 assists in his distinguished career and inflicted more damage (seven goals and 11 assists) in 31 games against United than any of his teammates. This season Ralston finished with seven goals and eight assists. Only Carlos Valderrama (114), Preki (110) and Marco Etcheverry (101) — all playmaking midfielders — have more assists in league history.

“We played them a couple times. I went up against him before and he’s a very good player, but I thought I did pretty good, so I know what to expect,” Gros said.

Ralston, who is the MLS career leader in minutes played (23,008) and games (260), is at his most dangerous when crossing into the box from his right-flank midfield position. Maryland graduate Taylor Twellman, who has scored eight career goals in 10 games against United, is the primary recipient of Ralston’s well-placed crosses at the back post.

But whether United will make its fifth trip in nine years to MLS Cup depends on how well it defends against the Revolution’s formidable overall attack.

United must overcome the loss of captain and central defender Ryan Nelsen because of an accumulation of yellow cards. Veteran Ezra Hendrickson most likely will start for Nelsen, who is in the final year of his MLS contract and is drawing interest from a number of clubs in the prestigious English Premier League. Five of United’s 10 losses this season came with Nelsen out.

Twellman (nine goals, one assist) and Pat Noonan (11 goals, eight assists) form a high-scoring forward line. Midfielders Jose Cancela (three goals, 10 assists) and rookie Clint Dempsey (seven goals, one assist) also are dangerous.

Revolution coach Steve Nicol changed his alignment in the playoffs, scrapping his four-man back line for a 3-5-2 formation. The switch produced immediate results as New England upset heavily favored Columbus 2-1 in their two-game, aggregate-goal semifinal series.

United comes into the conference final as the league’s hottest team with a season-high five-game winning streak and seven victories in its last eight games. United had a 2-0-2 record against the Revolution in the regular season.

“Everyone is excited after 10 or 11 months waiting for this game, but we know it’s going to be difficult,” United coach Peter Nowak said. “You have put everything you have into it.”

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