WASHINGTON -- Another Revolution season concluded with an overtime elimination. Last night, the Revolution thrice rallied from deficits for a 3-3 tie with D.C. United in the Eastern Conference final, then lost in the first-ever Major League Soccer match decided by penalty kicks.
United took the penalty kick shootout, 4-3, and will meet Kansas City in the MLS Cup in Carson, Calif., next Sunday.
This was as close to an epic struggle as MLS has presented in nine seasons, both teams raising their level of play, and several individuals producing outstanding performances. There were dramatic moments, the pace of the game accelerating even as players tired over 120 minutes of playing time. The Revolution seemed rejuvenated by Pat Noonan's tying goal in the 85th minute, the team then setting the pace for the rest of the match.
Though the Revolution had their worst regular-season record since 2001 and only qualified for the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, they improved enough in recent weeks to be considered a worthy finalist. But United, playing without starters Dema Kovalenko and Ryan Nelsen (both suspended), took the lead in the 11th, 21st, and 67th minutes, then held off the Revolution and relied on goalkeeper Nick Rimando to save two penalties.
"We showed what we were made of," Revolution coach Steve Nicol said. "When you have a group of players playing together and getting confidence, this is exactly what happens. That was our biggest problem this season, not having the same team together. We showed what we are capable of doing when we have a settled team.
"Our approach was to come and play, we didn't come to sit in and snatch a goal. It was a great game with plenty of chances. There was nothing between the teams and they couldn't complain if we had won the game, just as we can't complain that they won the game."
After Brian Carroll made his attempt in the sixth round of kicks, Rimando dove to his left to stop Clint Dempsey, giving D.C. the victory. The Revolution's Matt Reis saved penalties by Jaime Moreno and Ben Olsen and converted a penalty.
Taylor Twellman and Shalrie Joseph also converted kicks for the Revolution. Steve Ralston hit the crossbar and Rimando stopped Jay Heaps's kick. For United, Santino Quaranta, Freddy Adu, and Alecko Eskandarian also converted.
The Revolution concluded the previous three seasons with losses in overtime games -- the 2001 US Open Cup against Los Angeles (2-1), the 2002 MLS Cup against the Galaxy (1-0), and the 2003 Eastern Conference final against Chicago (1-0).
United capitalized on Revolution defensive mistakes to take a 2-1 lead in the first half, but the Revolution rallied to tie the score on Ralston's penalty kick in the 44th minute. Neither team seemed secure defensively in the first half, Revolution defenders losing possession easily, and United appearing vulnerable with Ezra Hendrickson replacing Nelsen in central defense.
Eskandarian took advantage of indecision by Heaps and Joseph, running onto a lofted ball from Olsen, then curving a shot off the inside of the far post for the first goal. The goal area was then showered by confetti from the La Norte fan section, a symbol of the passionate and raucous support from 21,101 spectators at RFK Stadium. This was the first time the Revolution had fallen behind in regulation time in a playoff game since a 2-1 loss to Chicago in 2002 and would become the first game in which an MLS team had rallied from three deficits in one playoff game, the Revolution scoring in the 17th (Twellman), 44th (Ralston), and 85th minutes (Noonan).
Twellman tied the score, volleying a Marshall Leonard cross into the far side of the net. But the Revolution seemed to lose focus briefly. Though United backed off from pressuring, Avery John lost the ball for a corner kick in the 21st minute. Seconds later, John blocked Eskandarian's point-blank shot near the penalty spot. But the Revolution failed to clear following another corner, leaving Moreno alone just outside the penalty area. As the Revolution defense attempted to recover, Moreno curled a shot inside the near post for a 2-1 advantage.
Ralston converted his third successive penalty kick this season, the shot bouncing off the right post and caroming off the back of Rimando over the goal line. The play was set up by constant Revolution pressure, creating a series of opportunities. In the 43d minute, Moreno lost possession to Leonard, who ran down the left side, his cross into the penalty area going off Carroll's hands. Referee Terry Vaughn immediately awarded the penalty kick.
In the second half, Joseph took control of midfield in a powerful two-way performance, outdueling most valuable player candidate Moreno, though Moreno came closest to deciding the contest in regulation time.
Both teams were about to make substitutions when United's Earnie Stewart crossed from the right to Christian Gomez on the edge of the goal area, Gomez heading the ball back into the right side of the net for a 3-2 D.C. lead in the 67th minute. Gomez then was replaced by Adu and the Revolution's Jose Cancela departed for Andy Dorman.
Pressure from Dempsey and Joseph in goal area earned a corner, Ralston curling the kick for Noonan to head over goalkeeper Rimando, tying the score in the 85th minute. Noonan had been among the most poised and effective players in the game, but it was his first good chance to score, and he jumped over the 5-foot-9-inch Rimando just outside the goal area to head into an open net.
Both teams had several chances after that, the best by Moreno, who faked two defenders to the ground, but his shot was blocked in the goal area for a corner in the 89th minute.