Sunday, October 29, 2006

I have seen the future of Soccer in America, and its name is MLS. True, I lived through the heyday of the Cosmos, who achieved a level of popularity that none of the teams in the MLS can claim. I think there is a stronger foundation here now. Tonight, I return from RFK, where the best thing I saw was the raucous D.C. United faithful at full throat, bouncing in their seats, waving flags, banging drums, setting off their smoke bombs, and enthusiastically cheering on their team. The announced crowd was 21,455, but this crowd filled the lower deck of RFK, with more bodies and infinitely more enthusiasm than I have seen at Nationals games with announced crowds twice that large.

Tonight's result? United was basically outplayed by the Red Bulls. Without question, the best player on the field was the Red Bulls' Jozy Altidore, still a few days shy of his 17th birthday, Altidore put on a show in the second half. He hit the post with one long blast, put the Red Bulls on top with a sharp header that drew the teams even in the aggregate, and nearly scored again after a dazzling display of step-over dribbling brilliance gained him a clear shot in the area. But, United drew even, when Christian Gomez gathered in a cross from the other side of the box, and finished the play with a well-placed sharply angled shot to beat the Bulls' goalie, Conway. Replays show MLS defender of the year, Bobby Boswell comically twisting and rolling to move out of the way and let the ball through to Gomez, who had called Boswell off. Gomez' series-clinching goal sent United through to the Eastern Conference semifinal next week against the New England Revolution, and touched off a D.C. United celebration that continued in the bowels of RFK stadium, and in the parking lots for more than a half-hour after the game.

Dozens of fans came with drums and other percussive instruments, and they would not be silenced quickly. This is the kind of fanaticism that has been missing from American soccer. Based on tonight's turnout, I think it's gained a real foothold here. Obviously, it isn't everywhere, as witnessed by the anemic turnout at last week's match in New Jersey. To some extent, this reflects the special relationship between D.C. United and its fans, but I believe it will spread to other cities.

I see signs that this tremendous bond, between the D.C. United team and its fans, is beginning to be duplicated at other stadiums around the league. I was impressed by the celebration in Houston, as the Dynamo put on a late surge to take tonight's game, and the playoff series, against Chivas USA. Brian Ching, who scored the series winner, was nearly mobbed by the Dynamo fans as he revelled amongst them.

I may have lied a little bit, when I started this post by saying the future of American soccer is the MLS. That's true, over the long run -- I believe the MLS will prove to be a great success. The immediate future of American soccer, though, is Jozy Altidore. I have been singing his praises since he first stepped on to the pitch for the Red Bulls, but this was Altidore's finest moment to date. He showed that, even at his young age, he can be a dominant force. I will enjoy watching him blossom into the first great American star.

Next Sunday, at RFK, United takes on a Revolution squad that came back from a 1-0 loss to Chicago, and an early goal on Saturday that put the Fire up 2-0 on aggregate. The Revolution fired back with an overwhelming offensive charge that put the Chicago goal under constant pressure. The Revs scored twice to gain the tie on aggregate, and then beat the Fire on penalty kicks. If Taylor Twellman had not squandered several excellent chances, the Revs might have won the series without need of the penalty kicks. Based on the way D.C. played tonight, Coach Peter Nowak thinks his United squad should be considered the underdogs.

I'm looking forward to a brilliant game. See you at RFK....

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