Tuesday, August 01, 2006

U.S. Open Cup soccer - D.C. UNITED OVERCOME THE CREW – In the staggering heat and humidity at the Germantown Maryland Soccerplex tonight, United oulasted the Columbus Crew, with a 2-1 overtime victory, in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Round of 16 match. The game-winner came early in overtime, as Jamil Walker claimed the goal – apparently, he was able to get a slight flick on with his head to direct Christian Gomez’s free kick past Crew goalkeeper, Bill Gaudette. But, there are a lot of storylines to report from this game.

On the plus side for United was the outstanding play of Gomez, who dazzled the crowd and the Crew all night long, with his slick moves, passing and line-drive shots. Gomez just missed scoring the winner himself in stoppage time with a blast that was so powerful, it appeared to go through the Crew goalkeeper’s hands and ricocheted off the crossbar. Gomez also nearly set up a clincher in the second overtime period, when he dribbled through and past the Crew defense only to drop the ball back with a nifty back-heel pass. Unfortunately, for United, Boswell’s run-on to the ball was just not quick enough, and the keeper was able to stuff Boswell’s effort.

The Crew had taken a first-half lead on a set-piece header by former U.S. under-20 star, Chad Marshall. Marshall, making his second appearance for the Crew, notched his first professional goal and generally looked as if he belonged on the pitch. Fans of the national squad can take heart from the strong effort by this candidate for future national team honors. His decisive, well-placed header, off the corner kick, suggests that the national team may one day have a defender who is also a scoring threat.

United tied the game before halftime, when Jaime Moreno, standing near the top of the box, redirected a corner kick for United’s first goal. Moreno showed a nifty bit of skill, as his touch seemed to weave its way through the Crew defense and power through the attempted save of the Crew keeper. Though Gaudette got his hands solidly on the ball, he couldn’t control it, and he was unable to keep the ball from crossing the line before he could cover the loose ball.

Besides Marshall's strong header for a goal, Crew fans had little to cheer about in regulation. Walker's overtime goal for United may have seemed decisive at the time, but the Crew had several excellent chances in overtime. Highly touted young American players, Eddie Gaven and Danny Szetala nearly connected on a nifty combination, but United goalie, Nick Rimando, was up to the task with a spectacular stop. Late in the second overtime, Crew defender, Ezra Hendrickson narrowly missed a header, as he instead found the same side netting that United players seemingly had been aiming at earlier, repeatedly during the second half. Minutes later, in stoppage time, a blast by Ryan Coiner (or was it Chris Leitch?) whistled past Rimando. Instead of finding the back of the net for a game-tying goal, Coiner’s (Leitch's?) blast found only the goalpost, and United was able to hold on for the win. (**Late note here -- MLSNet's reporter notes the post-ringer was struck by Coiner, the Washington Post's Steven Goff writes that it was defender Chris Leitch -- I didn't get a good look at who struck the ball, but it could've been either player, or even defender Tim Ward -- the important thing is United was fortunate the ball ricocheted off the post).

With the victory United advances to the tournament quarterfinals, where they will likely take on the Red Bulls, in RFK, on August 23rd. For now, as United runs away with the Eastern Conference lead, United fans can still dream of a U.S. Open and MLS Cup double.

Most of the other noteworthy pieces coming out of this game involved strong play but weak finishing by the United players. The real standout in this regard was Freddy Adu. Adu’s fancy footwork repeatedly brought the crowd to its feet with anticipation. A year ago, he missed a wide open net during United’s yearly Open Cup match in Germantown. This year, Adu may have surpassed that ignominy. In the 45th minute, Adu won a race against Gaudette for a long pass. When Adu pushed the ball beyond the keeper’s reach, he appeared to have a nearly unmissable opportunity, with the entire net spread open before him. Unfortunately, Adu hurried his shot, and slid the ball just wide of the post. Alecko Eskandarian was also notable for producing numerous chances, but his efforts only produced several near-missed, finding the side netting.

United probably should have won this game convincingly – and would have, if they could have finished off just a couple of their many, superb chances. As for Adu and Esky -- they are clearly works in progress. While both players need to improve their finishing, they both showed flair and remarkable skill. Adu, especially, showed truly dazzling skills, which made his failures to finish only that much more frustrating and disappointing. In contrast, veteran Jaime Moreno showed he is still a devastating finisher. And the play of Christian Gomez continues to wow this United fan. Last season, I thought Gomez was as good a player as any in MLS. With tonight's outing, the best I can recall, Gomez seems to have taken his game up to another level. Overall, United fans can take heart from the team’s showing, which was considerably better than the forgettable effort three nights ago in Utah.

Late Update: In his column for the Washington Post, Steven Goff writes of Christian Gomez that his "breathtaking display of ball distribution throughout the stifling evening, showed why he is perhaps the early leading candidate for the MLS most valuable player award." http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/08/01/AR2006080101628.html.
Kudos to Mr. Goff for the kind of real insight that is too often missing from press coverage of soccer. I could not agree more -- in fact, I wrote as much above. Gomez is MLS's best.

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