United blank Crew, keep playoff hopes alive

WASHINGTON -- With their playoff hopes hanging in the balance, D.C. United snapped a three-game losing streak with a hard-fought 1-0 win against the Columbus Crew in the midst of a cold drizzle at RFK Stadium on Saturday night.The visitors enjoyed more of the ball and created more attacking danger for most of the evening. But United made the most of one of the game's only bright spots, a slick combination between Luciano Emilio and Boyzzz Khumalo, to notch an early goal which they defended grimly for the balance of the match.Earlier in the week United coach Tom Soehn had spoken of the Crew's tendency to sit in on the road, and his starting lineup reflected an urgency to take the game to the visitors. United returned to a 3-5-2 formation for the first time in weeks, with center back Dejan Jakovic flanked by Marc Burch and Julius James in defense, allowing playmaker Christian Gomez to push further upfield in support of frontrunners Luciano Emilio and Boyzzz Khumalo.But the tricky field conditions made it difficult to play neat, flowing soccer as slick grass interspersed with patches of standing water played havoc on both teams.In the 11th minute Crew midfielder Kevin Burns tried to surprise Steve Cronin -- manning the United nets just days after signing with the club on loan from USL-1 side Portland -- with an audacious chip from midfield, forcing the goalkeeper to backpedal and palm the well-aimed shot over the crossbar.Early on the D.C. attack struggled to sustain any possession in the Columbus half, only to strike for the match's first goal on their first foray into the penalty area in the 17th minute. The inspiration came from Khumalo, who lured center back Eric Brunner out of position with some sharp footwork before slotting an excellent through ball into Emilio's path.The Brazilian chipped over an advancing William Hesmer and while Danny O'Rourke hustled back to clear the rolling ball out of the goalmouth with a desperate slide that sent him careening into the twine, referee Alex Prus and his assistant ruled that the ball had crossed the line to give D.C. a 1-0 lead.Cronin has barely had enough time to learn his new teammates' names this week but he made a significant contribution to their cause in the 25th minute after Robbie Rogers ran onto a long ball that Andrew Jacobson had misjudged. The Crew winger ripped a half-volley towards the far upper corner but Cronin flung himself to his left to parry the effort away.Columbus seemed to be adapting to the cold, wet environs more effectively than their hosts, as they won the majority of 50-50 balls and strung together superior possession. But the men in yellow failed to convert that advantage into a goal as Cronin and his defense ably dealt with wave after wave of threatening situations over the remainder of the first half.Right winger Devon McTavish had picked up an early caution for a dangerous challenge on O'Rourke and Soehn, clearly anxious to defend his lead and finish the match with 11 men, replaced him with Lawson Vaughn to start the second half. A short while afterwards Jaime Moreno entered in place of Gomez and made history with his 307th league appearance for the Black-and-Red, breaking Cobi Jones' record for the most MLS regular-season games played with one club.D.C. continued to ride their luck, however, ceding space on the wings and surrendering possession all too easily, allowing the visitors to rain crosses into the box with regularity.But Cronin faced down the barrage with impressive composure. Most notably he flicked a left-wing service over the bar in the 62nd minute, dropped low to cleanly gather a Rogers cross at the near post seven minutes later and confidently punched away Frankie Hejduk's bending cross in the 71st.Khumalo soon gave way to Danny Szetela as United tried to ride out the storm, even as the playing conditions grew progressively worse with the return of steady rainfall along with a damp, chilly breeze.Crew coach Robert Warzycha tried to change the game with a few subs of his own, bringing on strikers Jason Garey and Emilio Renteria. In the 73rd minute Renteria nearly caught United on the counterattack as he surged forward and rolled a low shot just wide of the far post with Cronin beaten.But the Venezuelan's next contribution was a far more negative one as he was shown a straight red card for an irritable swipe at Julius James in the 83rd minute. D.C.'s Trinidadian defender had outmuscled Renteria to gain possession along the United endline and the Crew frontrunner lashed out at his Achilles as James shepherded the ball over the line, earning an immediate dismissal from Prus.Even so, Columbus continued to boss possession as United struggled to find their rhythm or even link a series of passes together. Several counterattacking opportunities went begging for the home side and they failed to send a shot on target over the entirety of the second half, leaving their cold, soggy fans to sweat until the very end.But Prus' final whistle brought a rousing cheer from the D.C. supporters' groups as they celebrated a precious victory that keeps their side's playoff hopes alive going into the season's final weekend.United will travel to Kansas City on Saturday evening to take on the Wizards, while the Crew will face one of United's chief rivals for a wild card place, the New England Revolution, in the final match of the 2009 regular season on Sunday afternoon at Crew Stadium.SCORING SUMMARY
DC: Luciano Emilio (Thabiso Khumalo) 17MISCONDUCT SUMMARY
DC: Devon McTavish (caution; Reckless Tackle) 6 CLB: Emilio Renteria (ejection; Violent Conduct) 83Referee: Alex PrusReferee's Assistants: Sean Hurd; Adam Wienckowski4th Official: Andrew ChapinTime of Game: 90:00Weather: Rain -and- 45 degreesAttendance: 16,274