- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 29, 2006

D.C. United’s Alecko Eskandarian saw something in his team in its playoff opening win over New York that he had not viewed in quite some time.

“Fight and pride,” the forward said.

It was something sorely missing as the United slumped through the end of the season, winning only two of its final 12 regular-season contests and bringing a three-game losing streak into the postseason. The club that dominated Major League Soccer and looked like a lock for the MLS Cup in the first half of the season was in free fall.

United, at least temporarily, reversed its sinking fortune with a 1-0 win at the Red Bulls eight days ago in their first of two aggregate goals playoff games. It will attempt to show it is fully back tonight by eliminating the Red Bulls at RFK Stadium. United needs only a tie or better to reach the Eastern Conference final.

“In New York, I was so happy, especially in the first half, the way we came out with our team defense,” Eskandarian said. “I mean all over the field we were scrapping, running and fighting for each other. That is what it is all about, especially in the playoffs.”

MLS player of the year favorite Christian Gomez provided the only goal needed to finish off a nifty give-and-go from Jaime Moreno in the 77th minute. MLS goalkeeper of year Troy Perkins did his part, including knocking Jeff Parke’s game-tying attempt in second-half stoppage time into the crossbar.

United clamped down for its first shutout win in 14 games. The East’s top-seed, United would play host to the conference title game next week if it eliminates the Red Bulls, who are led by former United and U.S. national coach Bruce Arena.

“I think the atmosphere on the team is coming back,” said Moreno, the Bolivian forward who has 11 goals and 10 assists. “It was a tough week before the last game. There were still some doubts. It wasn’t there yet. At the game we showed a lot of heart, and we believe in ourselves again. We do have a good team, and we can’t just throw everything away.”

The defense didn’t break down in critical situations, and the offense did just enough to secure the win.

“When I was out [injured] during the second half of the season, I [was] watching from the stands,” said Eskandarian, who started his first game in New York after missing four games and coming off the bench twice late in the season because of a knee injury. “It was too easy for other teams to score, and we just lost our sense of pride of, ‘Hey, you are coming to our house, and we are going to kick the [stuffing] out of you. And we are not going to make it easy for you.’ There were too many games where it was easy for teams to score goals.”

United has a 9-3-4 record at RFK. It doesn’t need to win to advance, but the players insist they are not looking at this game with that dangerous mentality.

“The main goal is not to give up any goals,” said United’s Bobby Boswell, the MLS defender of the year. “We don’t look at it as a game we can tie. We look at it as a game we are going to win. We need to put on a performance with possession soccer, limit their chances and finish ours.”

Meanwhile, the Red Bulls may have to go on the offensive early than they otherwise would.

“The last thing we can do is give up an early goal,” said Arena, who took over New York in midseason. “Then the game is basically over.”

Eskandarian said the team has been “chippy” in practices with players getting in shoving matches. He is encouraged by his team’s intensity. And so is United coach Peter Nowak.

“The first game is what we have been looking for,” said Nowak, who led United to the 2004 MLS championship. “We went to New York to win the game. It is nice to have this kind of cushion. There is still the second game to play. It is good to play at home, but the intensity, the approach must be the same as before the game in New York.”

Notes — If the Red Bulls win the regular game by one, 30 minutes of overtime will be played. If the aggregate score is still tied after that, penalty kicks will decide the series. … United reserve goalkeeper Nick Rimando sprained his right ankle while jogging with his dog earlier this week and will not be available. Rookie Ryan McIntosh, who has not played in an MLS game as the team’s third goalkeeper, will be Perkins’ backup. …

Gomez and teammate Bryan Namoff each received yellow cards in New York. If either gets another one tonight, he would be suspended for the conference title game if United moves on.


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