Too often in soccer, important games can be dire, as both teams play to avoid making a mistake, with tension confused with excitement. But MLS has seen some thrilling playoff matches: Chicago vs. Dallas in 1999, San Jose vs. Los Angeles in 2003, and the 1996, 2003 and 2004 MLS Cups, to name a few. D.C. United's 2004 Eastern Conference Final vs. the New England Revolution was one of the best.
United fans had waited five years for this moment, and even as late as July, we didn't expect to be here. But the return of several injured players after the All-Star break and the arrival of Christian Gomez a month later had transformed United into the hottest team in the league, winning seven of their last eight games. Even with Dema Kovalenko and captain Ryan Nelsen suspended, Josh Gros and Ezra Hendrickson could ably cover for them.
To add to the atmosphere, the supporters clubs, as we had done the week before, decorated RFK Stadium with banners with slogans like 'Party Like It's 1999' and 'Vamos Gomito.' A huge painting of Jaime Moreno hung next to the giant clock.
All the games listed above featured an early goal, and after only 11 minutes Alecko Eskandarian pounced on a Jay Heaps error, took two touches and fired his shot into the net. However, New England's tenacity would pay off merely six minutes later. Marshall Leonard chipped a ball into the box and Taylor Twellman ran past a napping United defense and re-directed the ball past Nick Rimando to tie the game.
United re-took the lead within four minutes. Moreno had the ball on the left outside the box. Anticipating a cross, goalkeeper Matt Reis cheated towards the far post. Moreno noticed this and easily chipped the ball into the near post.
All continued well until two minutes before halftime, when Leonard crossed from the left. Brian Carroll was a step inside the box and the ball struck his arm and the referee pointed to the spot. Steve Ralston fired the penalty towards the right post. Rimando guessed correctly, but the ball deflected off the post, hit Rimando in the back, and went into the net to tie the game again.
The second half started slowly, but the intensity was upped when an exhausted Gomez again gave the home side the lead. Earnie Stewart got away from Rusty Pierce on the right wing and crossed to the far post. Gomez, on fumes, somehow ran to the ball and got his head to it. The ball stayed in the air for an eternity and we held our breath as it floated across the face of goal, over Reis and into the net. RFK simply erupted.
With time running out, our thoughts were turned to the celebration. But in the 84th minute, sustained pressure led to a Revolution corner. Ralston sent the ball to the far post, where Pat Noonan was unmarked. Rimando came out for the ball, but Noonan, who led the league in scoring, got to it first and headed home the equalizer.
Nobody could believe it. Three times United had taken the lead, and each time New England had retaliated. Despite chances by Moreno and Olsen, United couldn't find the winner and the game headed to overtime. After 90 minutes of end-to-end soccer, now they would play up to 30 minutes, going to penalty kicks if necessary.
We feared the worst. United's record in overtime over the last few years was poor, and Reis had saved two penalty kicks the week before in Columbus. But this was not the same team as last year, and we were not in Columbus.
Chances were few in the overtime periods. The running was slower, the passes less precise and the shots weaker. The players were exhausted, and 120 minutes of soccer ended with the game tied. For the first time in MLS history, a playoff game would be determined by the crapshoot of penalty kicks.
First up for United was Olsen, whose shot was saved by Reis. With the opportunity to give the Revs an early advantage, Ralston put his shot off the crossbar. Santino Quaranta, who came on for Bryan Namoff at the start of the second overtime, converted, as did Reis, Adu, Twellman, and Eskandarian.
Heaps shot to the right corner, but Rimando guessed correctly and saved! It was 3-2, United. A goal and United would be the winner, and Jaime Moreno, whose return had been so inspirational for the team this season, stepped up to take it.
But Reis made the save! Then, Shalrie Joseph sent Rimando the wrong way to tie it after the minimum five rounds, and we moved into sudden death. Brian Carroll coolly buried his shot in the side netting. Clint Dempsey, the Rookie of the Year, was next. Something in me thought, "This is it." Dempsey began his run and shot.
The next few minutes were a blur. The team mobbed Rimando in front of the goal. We screamed and hugged each other, climbing over seats in exultation to find friends. D.C. United, for the first time since 1999, were going to MLS Cup. The trophy was presented and we stayed in the stadium for as long as possible, never wanting the moment to end.
Was it the greatest MLS game ever? To be honest, I'm not sure. But everything about that game -- the level of play, the way New England kept fighting back, the penalty shootout, the sight of 21,201 black-clad fans on their feet all game -- brought to reality everything we had hoped to see at an American soccer game.
D.C. United 3, New England Revolution 3
D.C. United advance to MLS Cup 2004 on penalty kicks, 4-3
Goals: Eskandarian (Olsen) 11, Twellman (Leonard) 17, Moreno (Stewart) 21, Ralston (PK) 44, Gomez (Stewart, Eskandarian) 67, Noonan (Ralston) 85
DC -- Olsen (saved), Quaranta (goal), Adu (goal), Eskandarian (goal), Moreno (saved), Carroll (goal)
NE -- Ralston (hit crossbar), Reis (goal), Twellman (goal), Heaps (saved), Joseph (goal), Dempsey (saved)
D.C. United -- Rimando, Namoff (Quaranta 106), Hendrickson, Petke, Stewart (Prideaux 81), Carroll, Gomez (Adu 69), Olsen, Gros, Eskandarian, Moreno.
New England Revolution -- Reis, Heaps, Pierce, John, Ralston, Cancela (Dorman 68), Dempsey, Joseph, Leonard (Kamler 81), Noonan, Twellman.
Yellow Cards: Joseph 1, Gros 5, Eskandarian 49, John 55, Namoff 58, Pierce 62, Olsen 87
Referee: Terry Vaughn
David Lifton is a contributor to dcunited.com. He is a member of the Screaming Eagles and longtime supporter of D.C. United.