- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 5, 2006

Inconsistent D.C. United will try to right itself in time for today’s Eastern Conference final.

In the first half of the season, United was by far the best team in the MLS. But it struggled down the stretch. In the first round of the playoffs, United was again uneven, nearly watching its season close in another sub-par outing before team savior Christian Gomez scored a late goal to win the series and keep its dumbfounding season alive.

The uninspiring playoff win — 2-1 aggregate score in the two-games, total-goals series against New York, which brought a losing record into the postseason — leaves questions as United entertains New England in the conference championship game this afternoon at RFK Stadium.

“I am very excited to see how this team reacts,” midfielder Ben Olsen said.

United has had its share of built-in excuses and has used them all to explain its poor play recently. It had a 14-game unbeaten streak early in the season and wrapped up the league’s best regular-season record, leaving little motivation as the regular season ended.

Last week, United came into Game 2 of the playoffs series with a one-goal lead in the total-goals series and played with a not-to-lose mentality. Players suggested it was because it did not need to win and had only to tie to advance. It played that way and was clearly outplayed by the Red Bulls, yet came away with a 1-1 tie to move on.

“This is a different approach because this is only one game and the winner will go to the MLS Cup,” said United coach Peter Nowak, whose team has won only two of its last nine games. “That is the goal. It was before the season. We will see how the game goes. We achieved all these goals during the regular year. Now it is time to achieve another one.”

United (16-7-11) has advanced in the playoffs thanks to a pair of goals from MVP candidate Gomez, who had a team-high 14 goals in the regular season. The 31-year-old Argentinean’s latest heroics came after Josh Gros’ cross. Gomez blasted the series-winner from 10 yards out in the 84th minute last week at RFK.

In contrast, the Revolution (13-9-12) come in after erasing a two-goal series deficit to Chicago and winning the series in a shootout. New England, the preseason favorite to win the conference, finished the regular season on a seven-game unbeaten streak, including a 2-1 win over United at RFK on Oct. 7.

The Revolution are led by reigning league MVP and University of Maryland product Taylor Twellman (11 goals in regular season), who had a goal and the series-clinching penalty kick against Chicago. Midfielder Andy Dorman is the playmaker with 10 regular-season assists. Forward Pat Noonan is also a dangerous on the attack.

New England’s second-leading scorer and U.S. World Cup midfielder Clint Dempsey (eight goals, four assists) is questionable to play with a sprained ankle after missing the second game of the Chicago series.

“The key is shutting down Taylor Twellman and Pat Noonan,” United defender Bryan Namoff said. “If we take care of them, we will take care of their scoring opportunities. And we need to win balls. They send a lot of long balls up top. They are very direct in their play. We need to stop that right away. And that is having good shape in the back, knowing when to step up and when to drop back.”

That’s something United did a poor job of in its lackluster tie against New York. The defense was continually under fire as the Red Bulls won the 50-50 balls and were regularly able to advance deep into the scoring zone.

“We were way too far back, conceding too much of the field and our pressure wasn’t good enough,” said Olsen, who feels his team was too defensive-minded because of the situation. “We see now what went wrong and hopefully we can fix it this weekend.”

United knows it was fortunate to reach this point after last week’s potential catastrophe. And it hopes to finally return to the form of the first half of the season in its quest for a second MLS title in three seasons and fifth overall.

“You can sense the excitement in the locker room,” said Nowak, whose first United team beat New England in penalty kicks in the 2004 conference title game at RFK. “You can sense it on the field. If you are not confident right now, then you are not supposed to be here. It’s not a question of motivation. It’s a question of how we will start and how we will approach the game and how, actually, we will play.”

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