- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

SEATTLE — What could be called the “D.C. United Champions League Tour” is over, and the results were much better than just about anyone could have expected.

There was a win against Celtic last month, a win (by a MLS All-Star team featuring eight United players) against Chelsea on Saturday, and on Wednesday night a 1-1 tie with Real Madrid.

Now, what does that all mean? A lot, according to United midfielder Freddy Adu.

“We wanted to prove that American soccer is not a joke,” Adu said after the match with Real Madrid at Qwest Field. “We beat Chelsea and we beat them fair and square, and we just tied Real Madrid. What more could you ask for? You can’t say that we just got lucky. No, because we’ve done it game in and game out.”

This, of course, is a United team in midseason form, and all three of its big-name opponents were in the first few weeks of preseason training. If United isn’t ready for promotion to a top-level European league, it at least gained respect for the club and for soccer in this country.

“I think they were very good,” said Ruud van Nistelrooy, a new striker for Real Madrid. “You can see the way they play. They played football from the back. Good technical play, and I have to say they made a really good game for us.”

Being a capable sparring partner is not the ultimate goal for anyone associated with MLS. Still, this summer has been a great success for the league, especially after an MLS Select team embarrassingly lost 5-0 in Madrid last August.

Plus, when things go well against the biggest teams in the world, players walk away with moments they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.

“Not everybody can say they scored a goal against Real Madrid,” said United forward Alecko Eskandarian about his strike in the 25th minute. “It was definitely one of the most special moments of my life. It’s a big goal because we are representing our league. It’s not just kicking around in the back yard. I’m sure there were a bunch of people watching this game, and hopefully we’ll send some shock waves throughout the world.”

Goalkeeper Troy Perkins experienced similar feelings after he saved one of Roberto Carlos’ trademark bullet of a free kick.

“You see him line up for the ball and you are thinking, ‘Oh, my. He’s going to bury this ball,’” Perkins said. “Luckily the wall did its job and he put it where I could save it. But I still didn’t see the ball. It was moving so fast. You watch on TV and it’s like, wow. But when you see it — that ball moves.”

Antonio Cassano scored in the 22nd minute for Real Madrid’s only goal.

Now, it’s back to reality for D.C. United.

It’s safe to say 66,000-plus fans won’t be watching live when United visits the New York Red Bulls on Wednesday. United still holds by far the best record in the league and is poised for a deep run in the playoffs. But it will have to maintain the same intensity when the stands aren’t full and the rest of the world isn’t watching.

That’s something coach Peter Nowak isn’t going to let his players forget. The United and All-Star results against three of the teams from the 2005-06 Champions League, won by FC Barcelona, were outstanding, but winning the MLS Cup is Nowak’s first priority.

Real Madrid “is a world-class team and we are still not Barcelona,” Nowak said. “When you play three games like that and you get two wins and a tie, you can’t sit back on your laurels and say, we can play with these guys. We have to get back from this great experience and play as we played before in our league.”

Note — The New York Red Bulls acquired the rights to former D.C. United midfielders Dema Kovalenko and Shawn Kuykendall in exchange for a partial player allocation.

Kovalenko spent seven years in the league, including three with United, before spending this year with FC Metalurh Zaporizhya in his native Ukraine. He has 34 goals and 34 assists in 167 career MLS games.

Kuykendall played in two matches for United as a rookie last season.

United also acquired a partial allocation in the trade that sent Santino Quaranta to Los Angeles earlier this week. The team plans to combine the allocations to acquire a player in the future.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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