Monday, October 20, 2003

D.C. United was 29 seconds from returning to the Major League Soccer playoffs for the first time in four years when disaster struck.

Brian McBride headed in Alex Pineda Chacon’s cross in the 100th minute as the Columbus Crew kept their playoff hopes alive with a 3-2 overtime victory before an announced 14,368 yesterday at RFK Stadium.

United (10-11-8) is winless this season in overtime games (0-5-8).

United’s playoff hopes, and possibly coach Ray Hudson’s job, hang in the balance Saturday in the regular-season finale against the Kansas City Wizards at RFK. A win or tie by United, which also failed to clinch a playoff berth last Saturday when it lost to the New England Revolution, gives it a postseason spot. A loss and the club can only hope the Chicago Fire beat the Crew the following day in Columbus.

“Thankfully, we get a second chance and now it’s for all the marbles,” Hudson said of next week’s game. “It’s hard to believe with only 29 seconds left and we’re in, but that’s the cruelty of this game. This is it — the season could be over or it could be just beginning next week.”

Yesterday’s game looked as though it would end in a tie after United defender Mike Petke headed a in a 35-yard cross from midfielder Jose Alegria to tie it 2-2 in stoppage time.

“I thought we were going to the playoffs at that moment,” Petke said.

In the 93rd minute, United rookie Alecko Eskandarian was sent off for a reckless tackle on Crew midfielder Duncan Oughton, forcing D.C. to play a man down for the next seven minutes.

Asked if Eskandarian’s red card affected the outcome, Hudson replied, “I have no [expletive] comment on that — you can imagine. It’s a rookie mistake.”

It didn’t help that United played without star midfielder Marco Etcheverry (suspension) and Earnie Stewart (groin).

McBride’s game-winner was set up by Pineda Chacon, who served a cross from inside the box. McBride, who had flu-like symptoms earlier in the day and came on as a substitute, soared over defender Brandon Prideaux inside the 6-yard box and headed the ball inside the right post.

“I went up and my positioning was good. I honestly wouldn’t change anything I did, I was right where I needed to be, and McBride beat me. That’s his strength,” Prideaux said

It was a physical game as the teams combined for 48 fouls — 30 by United — and 10 yellow cards and two penalty kicks were awarded. Both penalty kicks were of the dubious nature.

United tied the game 1-1 in the 37th minute when referee Abiodun Okulaja awarded forward Hristo Stoitchkov for his dive in the box. Stoitchkov converted the penalty kick.

The Crew (9-12-8) received their penalty kick at the end of regulation when United goalkeeper Doug Warren came off his line and collided with Crew midfielder Brian West in the 87th minute.

Okulaja whistled Warren for the foul, ruling that the goalie didn’t touch the ball and impeded West’s progress. McBride made the penalty kick and gave the Crew a 2-1 lead.

“I hate soccer, I really do and a lot of it has to do with [officiating],” Petke said. “Those [refs] from the moment that I came into this league make me want to retire after every game. It’s so sad. Forget about winning or losing, they take everything away from the game and make it about them. They love hearing the whistle blow. They love being the center of attention. If we would have won this game 4-0, I would have said the same thing.”

Added Hudson: “[Officiating] is the singular most important aspect of this league that has got to improve and elevate.”

A communication breakdown between Petke and Warren gave the Crew a 1-0 lead. Petke headed a long Crew ball back to Warren, who came off his line only to have the ball sail over his head. West chased the ball down and tapped it in for an easy goal.

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