Saturday, October 21, 2006

D.C. United Off to a Strong Start -- The MLS' second season (the playoffs) got under way this afternoon. D.C. United went into Giants' Stadium looking to recapture their dominant form that had escaped them over the last six weeks of the season. DC United looked very strong for the first 30-35 minutes, controlling much of the possession. United's best chance of the first half came very early, about one minute into the game, as Freddy Adu put a free kick onto Facundo Erpen, who knocked a dangerous header on net. The Red Bulls' keeper, Conway, really had to stretch for Erpen's header, and was just able to deflect it over the goal. The Red Bulls did have one excellent chance in the first half themselves. Off a quick restart, and a well-placed cross by Amado Guevara, Austrian international Markus Schopp seemed to have a fairly simple opportunity for a header to finish it off, but Schopp sent his header over the goal.

United finally broke through, in the 77th minute, as Christian Gomez and Jaime Moreno worked their wonders, playing the ball back and forth between them, as they rushed down the field. The give-and-go combination concluded with Gomez lifting the ball over the Red Bulls' keeper, who could only watch the ball drop inside the corner of the Red Bulls' goal. The Red Bulls nearly drew even in stoppage time, but Jeff Parke's shot hit the crossbar. Though the Red Bulls were probably the more dangerous side for most of the second half, it was United that emerged with a 1-0 victory.

The stars for United were Gomez, the likely league MVP, along with Alecko Eskandarian and Josh Gros, who really kept the pressure on the Red Bulls' defense. The league's goalkeeper of the year, Troy Perkins, also played a confident game in goal, seemingly in the right place all afternoon. Of course, Jaime Moreno played a strong game, and D.C. would not have won without his wonderful understanding and combination with Gomez. Steven Goff's Washington Post story about the game focuses on the Moreno-Gomez bond.

Now it's back to RFK for next Sunday's game. Playing on the football field at Giants' Stadium is a bit of a joke. I may have been a regular at the old Cosmos' games, but the artificial turf is not the best for soccer. Worse, the field was already freshly painted for tomorrow's Jets' football game. Having barely visible lines for the soccer field, among the brightly painted football markings, is distracting and disappointing.

Moreover, as any Giants or Jets fan can tell you, the winds in Giants Stadium really start to pick up at this time of the year. In football, it can be difficult to sustain a passing attack. The wind appeared to impact the play this afternoon, as well. Perhaps it was the chilly, blustery weather, or maybe it's just lack of interest, but Red Bulls' fans were not really much in evidence at the sparsely attended game today. The Red Bulls desperately need to do something to build a fan base there. Thankfully, the Red Bulls have broken ground on their new stadium, in Harrison, just across the Passaic River, from downtown Newark. Unfortunately, the early plans call for another artificial surface.

Of course, the situation at RFK is also far from ideal, due to having to share the stadium with the Washington Nationals. With the baseball season over for a month, perhaps the infield half at RFK will be in better soccer condition than it was during the baseball season. D.C. United is till hopeful than they can finalize a deal for their own stadium, across the Anacostia River, but those plans may stay in limbo while negotiations continue to attract a new ownership group for the team.

I suppose there are good reasons for seeking a new stadium, but RFK would not be the worst place to play, once the Nationals have their new stadium for the 2008 season. Certainly, Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles, United's semi-official fan clubs love the bouncing stadium sections on their side of the field. Professional soccer fans are becoming increasingly devoted here, but there just aren't enough of them yet. RFK is a big stadium, which would be a plus if the MLS were more popular. Right now, a more intimate facility might attract bigger crowds. Clearly, United feels the franchise will be more profitable in a modern, smaller facility. Hopefully, a new stadium won't mean significantly higher ticket prices, but that's a concern for another year...

Right now, the focus is on the playoffs. Having won today, United will need only a tie, next Sunday, to advance to the next round. Although the annual playoff attendance fall-off was evident today, as only 8,630 fans bought tickets, D.C. United's loyal following should be in evidence next week. Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles were out in force in New Jersey, so a raucous crowd can be expected next Sunday night. While the Red Bulls are a much weaker side, and by far the weakest team United will face in the playoffs, this was a good start for D.C. United. Maybe a trip to Dallas for the MLS Cup final is still part of United's future.

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