Friday, October 29, 2004

D.C. United once again looks like a championship team.

It has been a long time coming, but United is just two games away from an appearance in the MLS Cup. United played in the league’s first four championship games from 1996 to 1999, winning three.

Could this be United’s year again? The signs are promising.

With a two-goal cushion from its first playoff game at the Meadowlands last Sunday, United is the clear favorite to beat the visiting MetroStars tonight at RFK Stadium.

It’s a big climb back for the MetroStars, who are facing the best home team in the league (9-2-4). But after the Boston Red Sox’s recent antics, nothing seems impossible, and United must be prepared for a barrage of early attacks from the struggling visitors.

Just remember last season’s amazing playoff game between San Jose and Los Angeles, which many consider the greatest MLS game ever played.

The Earthquakes found themselves two goals down at home after losing the first game in L.A. 2-0, but after a stunning rally fought back to win the second match 5-4 in extra time. But history has been very good to United in playoff matches at RFK. The club has only lost one postseason game at home, 2-0 to a superior Chicago team last season.

After struggling all season, coach Peter Nowak seems to finally have built a team to his liking: A squad focused on fast midfield play, ground-ball soccer and neat passing routines.

Nowak’s tactics have worked to clog up the opposition’s midfield in recent games, forcing teams to take long shots. It’s imperative United not allow the MetroStars’ talented duo of Amado Guevara and Eddie Gaven any room to create chances in the middle of the park. If Guevara — the best playmaker in the league — is silenced, United should have no problems and move on to face New England or Columbus in the conference final.

United did not win two straight this year until last month but has now lost just once in its last six games. Last week’s almost flawless victory was all the more remarkable because it was only the club’s third on the road.

“I think we are peaking just at the right time,” defender Mike Petke said.

The MetroStars will be hunting for goals early in tonight’s game. The first 20 minutes will be crucial because United must stand firm and absorb attacks while looking to take advantage on the counterattack.

On the grapevine — Word is D.C. United will not protect goalie Nick Rimando in the expansion draft and he’ll be snatched up by Thomas Rongen, coach of expansion Chivas USA. United then would acquire surplus Chicago goalie Zach Thornton.

Speaking of Chivas, it appears that the ability to speak Spanish will be a requirement to play for the team.

“We plan on building a team of Spanish-speaking players and through them generate a rivalry with the other gringo teams,” Chivas president Jorge Vergara said. Oddly, Rongen speaks very little Spanish. And isn’t this blatant discrimination against players who can’t speak Spanish?

On another note, it seems unlikely that pending free agent Ryan Nelsen will remain in MLS. The talented central defender with good heading ability is ideal for the leagues in England or Scotland. Nelsen won the International Player of the Year Award in his native New Zealand this month.

Where were the crowds? — An average of just 8,381 watched the four playoff games last weekend. Only 5,679 attended New England’s game against Columbus on Saturday at Gillette Stadium.

Wenger stays — After seeing his club’s 49-game unbeaten streak end at Manchester United on Sunday, Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger, 55, signed a new contract keeping him with the London club through 2008. Since he arrived in 1996, Wenger has won three titles and three FA Cups.

Meanwhile, the big question is who threw soup at Manchester United coach Alex Ferguson in the stadium tunnel following the game? Ferguson was forced to make a quick change of clothes for his post-TV interview after the incident, and fingers are being pointed at unnamed Arsenal players.

United’s American goalie, Tim Howard, was recalled from first-team exile this week and helped the Red Devils beat Crewe 3-0 in a League Cup game.

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