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Analysis

United survives momentum change to hold off Wizards for MLS Cup title.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

CARSON, Calif. (Sunday, November 14, 2004) -- It is not often that momentum changed as quickly and decisively as happened in D.C. United's 3-2 victory over the Kansas City Wizards to capture the MLS Cup 2004 title at Home Depot Center.

Kansas City dominated the early going, taking a 1-0 lead, and seemed to have United back on its heels. Spurred by a fine individual goal by striker Alecko Eskandarian - his first of two -- United found its rhythm and led 3-1 after 26 minutes.

D.C. seemed to be comfortable with its lead before a fateful sequence which led to its midfielder Dema Kovalenko being sent off with a red card for an intentional hand-ball in his box and setting up Kansas City striker Josh Wolff's authoritative penalty kick to narrow the Wizards' deficit to 3-2 in the 58th minute.

This sent the normally attack-minded United straight to the defensive for the remaining 38 minutes, including six painfully long minutes of stoppage time. Kansas City created some chances -- and probably should have won the game -- but shorthanded D.C. was tenacious in protecting its goal and survived the onslaught.

Kansas City was supposed to be the defensive team, absorbing United's pressure and looking for quick counter-attacks. The Wizards, however, seemed to catch United by surprise by attacking early and it paid off when Jose Burciaga, Jr., scored from long range for a 1-0 lead in the sixth minute, seemingly catching goalkeeper Nick Rimando completely by surprise.

"We came out aggressive," Wizards midfielder Diego Gutierrez said. "We were satisfied with the goal, but then we made a few errors, they got the advantage and the momentum shifted."

Around the 10th minute United started to work itself back into the match. It found room down the flanks and Kansas City's back line had trouble with United's pace. Eskandarian made a brilliant diagonal run and ripped a first-class goal in full stride into the far right corner to equalize at 1-1 in the in the 19 th minute.

Eskandarian struck again four minutes later, taking the lead with a tainted goal. With United pressuring and the Wizards dropping more players back, K.C. defender Jimmy Conrad had his clearance batted down at close range by Eskandarian's left arm. The forward went in and scored for the 2-1 advantage.

"It clearly hit his hand, but there was no call," Conrad said. "Sometimes you get the calls, sometimes you don't."

United continued to apply pressure and midfielder Earnie Stewart beat defender Nick Garcia to get deep into the right side of the penalty area. Stewart's cross was targeted for Eskandarian, but it bounced off retreating defender Alex Zotinca and went into the near corner for an own goal to make it 3-1.

United was dictating much of the action before the flurry in the box changed everything. Wizards defender Jimmy Conrad's first blast was cleared by a defender. The ball returned to him and his second drive would have found the net had Kovalenko not batted it away with his right arm. In the quick turn of events, the Wizards had pulled to within one and were a man up with most of the second half remaining.

Suddenly, United was in desperate trouble. Kansas City coach Bob Gansler soon brought in striker Matt Taylor to replace midfielder Jack Jewsbury and the rookie certainly created chances, but was inaccurate with both his shots and passes.

"I brought in another striker and played he and Davy (Arnaud) together and moved Josh (Wolff) in behind them," Gansler said. "We also tried to double up on their outside men."

United coach Peter Nowak countered by bringing in rookie midfielder in a defensive role, replacing playmaker Christian Gomez. He also moved Jaime Moreno into the midfield, leaving Eskandarian as the lone striker. In the 65th minute, Freddy Adu was inserted for Eskandarian and he made a valuable contribution killing time up top.

"I was not worried when we went a goal down," Nowak said. "There was 35 minutes left to play and we simply stuck to our game plan. I thought when Dema came off we could hold on. Red cards, yellow cards, this team has character and can overcome a lot. I am so proud of them."

Kansas City pumped ball after ball into the D.C. box, but United remained calm and cleared most. When Kansas City broke through, it failed to connect on the one extra pass needed to tie the match. As the game moved into its final 10 minutes, the Wizards frantic attacking seemed to have taken its toll and killing time became easier for United.

"D.C. was able to hold together and we couldn't break them down," Gutierrez said. "We chased and chased, but you have to give them credit, they gave us little."


Player ratings

Kansas City

Starters

Goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi - 5: Not called on to do a lot and could not be blamed for the goals, but did not come up big either.

Defender Alex Zotinca - 5.5: Overall, might have had the strongest day defensively among the Wizard back-liners. A good showing.

Defender Jimmy Conrad - 5.5: For an All-Star defender, he was embarrassed by Eskandarian and had problems all day with Moreno. Would have had a goal had Kovalenko not handled his shot, leading to Wolff's penalty kick and a man advantage.

Defender Nick Garcia - 4.5: Not a strong match. Was beaten badly by Stewart's speed and seemed out of sync most of the day.

Defender Jose Burciaga, Jr., - 6: A lovely goal and a good effort. One of the Wizards' most effective players.

Midfielder Khari Stephenson - 5: Made little impression as he was often beaten to the ball in the middle. Not a strong match and he was replaced early.

Midfielder Diego Gutierrez - 5.5: Tried very hard, but got little support most of the time.

Midfielder Kerry Zavagnin - 4.5: Was strangely silent through much of the match. Seemed not to match up well against several of the United players in the middle.

Midfielder Jack Jewsbury - 4.5: Young player seemed out of his element.

Forward Josh Wolff - 5.5: Certainly tried, but was marked tightly. Made a good penalty-kick conversion, but did not create much for himself.

Forward Davy Arnaud - 5: Strong early, but seemed to lose his way as the match progressed and ended up doing little.

Reserves

Midfielder Igor Simutenkov (46th minute for Stephenson) - 5.5: Gave his team a lift in the early part of the second half, but created less as the match progressed.

Midfielder Matt Taylor (66th minute for Jewsbury) - 5: Created a couple of good chances, but could not convert and faded at the end.

Midfielder Diego Walsh (82nd minute for Zotinca) - 5: Brought on for the final push had a couple of openings, but did nothing with them.

D.C. United

Starters

Goalkeeper Nick Rimando - 5.5: Slow to react on the Wizards' first goal and could have prevented the sequnec leading to Wolff's penalty kick with a solid punch. But he got stronger as the match progressed and was solid in the final 20 minutes.

Defender Bryan Namoff - 5: Got off to a nightmare start when he didn't close on Burciaga when he scored and was beaten by Arnaud. He settled in and was a major help holding the lead while a man short.

Defender Ryan Nelsen - 6.5: Held the United back line together late, making play after play. A terrific game.

Defender Mike Petke - 5: Errors big and small, but made no missteps in the final half hour.

Defender Earnie Stewart - 6: Was all over the field both offensively and defensively.

Midfielder Brian Carroll - 5.5: Made some terrific plays, but overall was inconsistent.

Midfielder Christian Gomez - 5: Never really got on track. Some good early passing, but was replaced for a better defender and more energetic player.

Midfielder Ben Olsen - 6.5: United's unsung hero Was all over the midfield making plays, especially after United went the man down.

Midfielder Dema Kovalenko - 5: Had some physical problems early. After he got going, he soon was sent off with his red card.

Forward Jamie Moreno - 7: Demonstrated why he was really MLS's "Most Valuable Player," though passed over for the award. Was everywhere controlling the ball and the match, especially late when he often held the ball against multiple Wizards to run out the clock.

Forward Alecko Eskandarian - 7.5: When Kansas City could have gained confidence with its early goal, he countered with a beauty, perfectly placing his equalizer in full stride with a defender on his hip. Though his second goal was tainted, he as emerged as one of MLS's most dangerous offensive weapons. A masterful performance before taking a knock and being replaced for a defensive player while a man down.

Reserves

Midfielder Josh Gros (59th minute for Gomez) - 6: Added energy on both offense and defense. Was a huge help late.

Midfielder Freddy Adu (65th minute for Eskandarian) - 5.5: Acquitted himself well. Played some strong defense as the lone striker on his shorthanded side and pushed forward as a threat that the Wizards could not ignore as they tried too level the score.

Defender Brandon Prideaux (82nd minute for Stewart) - 5.5: His fresh legs in back were invaluable in the final minutes.

Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent. E-mail Robert Wagman.

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