WASHINGTON -- Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, an excellent venue for soccer, will revert to a less-than-adequate home for baseball next year. So, D.C. United could be playing their last game at the site when they host the Revolution in the MLS Eastern Conference final tonight at 7.
United's spirited followers create a raucous atmosphere and RFK's cantilevered roofing contributes to an intimate feel, augmenting the decibel level generated by the fans. And the playing field is usually in near-perfect condition, satisfying the aesthetic sense of soccer.
D.C. United also set standards for success in MLS until discarding many top players to comply with the league salary cap. D.C. reached the first four MLS Cup finals before its decline, but is now a game away from returning to the Nov. 14 match in Carson, Calif. And United earned the home-field advantage against the Revolution, gaining momentum with two 2-0 wins over the MetroStars in the first round.
D.C. is also among the league's marquee teams because of most valuable player candidate Jaime Moreno and 15-year-old Freddy Adu, but will be at a disadvantage without suspended midfielder Dema Kovalenko and defender Ryan Nelsen.
D.C. United have regained a positive image and have been playing attractive, effective soccer this season. But United represents little more than a recurring nightmare for Revolution captain Steve Ralston.
"I like a lot of D.C.'s players but I don't like D.C. United," Ralston said, "because they always seem to beat me. In the years I was in Tampa, we had good teams, but D.C. was a dynasty.
"But all of that is in the past. I want to win both of these games. We are not happy just making the semis, we want to win the whole thing. We are the only team to make the semis the last three years, but you can't count on having these opportunities all the time."
The Revolution have lost once in the last five games, a 1-0 defeat to United at RFK Stadium Oct. 9. The Revolution have established a reputation for reaching their peak at a key point in the season, becoming the only team to reach a conference final each of the last three years. On the final day of the regular season, the Revolution had a 7-13-9 record, but overcame the Chicago Fire to qualify for the playoffs, then eliminated regular-season champion Columbus last Sunday. Matt Reis saved two penalty kicks to preserve the Revolution's advantage against the Crew.
"We feel like we are the team that is playing well right now and not the team our record reflected," Ralston said. "We have played well for the last couple of months, we are in the final four, so why not us? We felt we had the advantage over Columbus because we had been playing some really important games and they had not played a meaningful game in months. But we were also fortunate. Without Matt's saves, we would be on vacation right now."
The Revolution have performed purposefully, improving their possession game and remaining organized defensively. After spending most of the season compensating for injuries, the Revolution have presented a consistent and athletic lineup recently.
"This is a team that has a breath of fresh air," Revolution forward Taylor Twellman said. "We can forget about the rest of the season and start over. We deserve to be underdogs but we relish the fact we are underdogs. We are a team that works hard and is scrappy."
The Revolution scored in only one game and had a 0-2-2 record against D.C. United this season. Twellman missed a penalty kick and strained his hamstring in a 1-0 loss to United May 29.
"D.C. is very good with the ball, they are the best team at moving the ball right now," Twellman said. "We can't sit back, we have to force them into mistakes and capitalize on their mistakes. We've given them very tough games every time this season. I was injured in one game we lost, but we had our chances in that game.
"[Kovalenko and Nelsen] are big parts of their team, but it gives someone else the opportunity to step up, and someone has always stepped up for us this year. Someone else will step up for them and do well." . . .
Ezra Hendrickson will likely replace Nelsen in central defense. Hendrickson played for Los Angeles in overtime wins over the Revolution in the 2001 US Open Cup final and 2002 MLS Cup, scoring the late tying goal in the Open Cup game . . . The MLS Cup finalists will qualify for the 2005 CONCACAF Champions Cup tournament. The Revolution lost to LD Alajuelense of Costa Rica in the first round of the tournament last year . . . Bolivia and Guatemala will meet in an exhibition at RFK Stadium next Saturday. Moreno (Bolivia) and Los Angeles's Carlos Ruiz (Guatemala) could play in the game, if their teams are eliminated from the MLS playoffs.