Monday, November 10, 2003

CHICAGO — With its season on the line, D.C. United’s offense was like a cloudy sky — no visible stars. And some of them might not be seen again, at least in a United uniform.

As has been the case all season, United’s best offensive players contributed little yesterday in Game 2 of Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference semifinals. Forwards Damani Ralph and Ante Razov each scored goals as the Chicago Fire defeated United 2-0 for the second straight game before 15,312 at Soldier Field.

The Fire will play host to the Eastern Conference final against the New England Revolution on Friday at Soldier Field.

“You can say what you like. We struggled over all the mountains, and we got to the playoffs, and we got our fannies slapped,” United coach Ray Hudson said. “We’ve got to figure out how we can be as dynamic and as cohesive as them. We just need two or three, maybe four players to bring this team to the next level.”

Hudson appealed to his veterans to step up before the game. Instead, United’s fading stars took a step backward against MLS’ best team on a clear, cold day on the banks of Lake Michigan.

Immediately following the game, midfielder Marco Etcheverry, the only player with the team from its inception in 1996, made an emotional address to his teammates signaling he probably has played his last game in a United uniform.

“This was maybe my last game. I don’t know,” Etcheverry said.

Hristo Stoitchkov, United’s volatile 38-year-old player/coach, also likely played his last game with the team. In the waning minutes of the game, Stoitchkov shoved away teammate Bobby Convey when Convey tried to separate Stoitchkov from referee Brian Hall and several Fire players.

“It’s an end of an era,” Hudson said. “Hristo’s volatility is too hard core in the short thrift of the vocabulary. We took one or two risks [this season]. It was an experiment that didn’t work in one regard, yet Hristo won us a lot of games. He just did. It’s the story of Stoitchkov. He’s very hard core. I wonder sometimes if the majority of our players can absorb that.”

Hudson said he would like to return and coach the club next season after ending United’s four-year playoff drought. In the next few weeks Hudson will talk about a contract extension with Kevin Payne, senior vice president of the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), the company that operates United and four other MLS clubs.

“I hope to continue making this a better team than it was this season,” Hudson said. “This season was a better team than last season, and last season’s team was a better team than the season before.”

It didn’t take long to see United’s season was at its end. United was down two goals entering the game because of the aggregate scoring of the series and needed to score the game’s first goal just to make things interesting.

So what does United do? The club allows Ralph’s goal in the 17th minute. Razov charged out of the Fire’s midfield and laid off a pass to defensive midfielder Chris Armas just outside the 18.

Armas touched the ball left to Ralph, MLS’ leading candidate for rookie of the year honors. Ralph stepped over the ball, settled it with his right foot and unleashed a rocket from 22 yards that found the net’s upper right corner for a 1-0 lead.

“They just castrated us with that first goal,” Hudson said.

Just after halftime, Razov added his insurance goal. Fire defender Orlando Perez played a ball up the left flank to star midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, who one-timed a cross into the box that found Razov at the far post. Razov, who beat United defender Galin Ivanov on his run, headed the cross into the net’s upper left corner.

With the goal, Razov became MLS’ all-time playoff scoring leader with 10 goals and 10 assists for 30 points.

“They are much better [than us],” United midfielder Dema Kovalenko said. “They [have] shown it all season. They’ve been doing it all year.”

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