D.C. United has performed better than any MLS team in recent weeks and deserved to be champion after defeating Kansas City, 3-2, in the MLS Cup Sunday. United, which closed the season with a seven-match unbeaten streak (6-0-1), relied on quick, short passes to escape pressure, playing through veterans Christian Gomez, Dema Kovalenko, Jaime Moreno, Ben Olsen, and Earnie Stewart, plus Brian Carroll, a composed 23-year-old. When faced with its most difficult test, United displayed resourcefulness in defeating the Revolution on penalty kicks after a 3-3 tie at RFK Stadium Nov. 6.
Coach Peter Nowak found the right combinations early on for United and made few changes during the season. Obscure players emerged as factors and established players delivered some excellent performances.
But Nowak would not likely have been in this position had he continued his playing career last year. Nowak was acquired by the Revolution in a trade with Chicago Jan. 3, 2003, his age and salary making him expendable. Two weeks after the deal, Nowak granted an interview from his Naples, Fla., home, expressing his desire to join the Revolution for spring training in Brazil. But soon after that, Nowak announced he was retiring.
Nowak's decision was hardly surprising, considering that he was 38 and had been a professional for 23 years, performing in four European countries before joining Major League Soccer in 1998. Plus, Nowak had established himself in Chicago, winning the 1998 MLS Cup and establishing a close relationship with the city's Polish community.
The announcement cited personal reasons for Nowak's retirement. He continued to work for the Fire, accepting a ceremonial title. Nowak's wife had become pregnant (Nowak has a daughter in college in Florida), and that likely was a factor in his decision.
Nowak was certainly physically capable of continuing to perform, judging by his final competitive match, a 2-0 loss to the Revolution Oct. 2, 2002, at Gillette Stadium. It also happened to be the final competitive game for Hristo Stoitchkov, a former European footballer of the year. Stoitchkov, now coach of Bulgaria's national team, was clearly at the end, suffering injuries and slowing down noticeably.
Had Nowak continued for another season, there is little chance he would have been considered for a head coaching position this season. But after a year in administration with the Fire, Nowak gained perspective and began pursuing coaching positions. United president Kevin Payne took a chance, since Nowak had no coaching experience, and it paid off.
D.C. was a potentially complicated proposition, the team still recovering from losing most of its best players. The addition of 14-year-old Freddy Adu could have turned United into a sideshow, but Nowak remained in control of the situation.
By the time of the Eastern Conference final, though, United was not in a position of strength. The Revolution were, as usual, reaching a late-season peak, and United's Kovalenko and Ryan Nelsen had been suspended. But D.C. was prepared for the match, took the initiative, and advanced with a combination of commitment and good fortune.
United dominated the Wizards in the final for long periods, and could have scored more goals. But the result also raised questions. Alecko Eskandarian committed a handball on his second goal, and referee Michael Kennedy should not have allowed the score. D.C. goalkeeper Nick Rimando again struggled on corner kicks and crosses, and though Rimando is satisfactory as a regular-season player, in playoff situations such weaknesses likely will continue to be exploited.
Now, D.C. is hoping to extend Nowak's contract.
The MLS deadline for protecting players from the expansion draft is today, and the draft will be conducted Friday. Chivas USA will choose first, after winning a coin flip, over Real Salt Lake.
Each team will be able to protect 12 players, and the Revolution are likely to leave goalkeeper Adin Brown available. Brown played seven games this year but twice sustained concussions and was declared out for the season. Brown played in 28 games in 2003 but has averaged fewer than 19 performances per season.
Brown, 26, remains MLS's best goalkeeping prospect, but the Revolution are reluctant to retain injury-prone players. Brown's future is likely in Europe, where he could triple his MLS salary even as a backup.
Four Revolution players have been training with the US national team preparing to meet Jamaica in a World Cup qualifier tomorrow in Columbus, Ohio, the most Revolution players ever called into the national team. Clint Dempsey and Taylor Twellman have a better chance to stick with the US for the next round of qualifying next year than Steve Ralston and goalkeeper Matt Reis.
Twellman has apparently recovered from a foot injury suffered in the final game against D.C. United, but has canceled plans to train with a German club in hopes of being called to US training camps in December and January, according to agent Craig Sharon.