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Digging up the roots of the Union’s run to the playoffs

The ties between Peter Nowak and Freddy Adu are just one part of a lineage that connects back to one of the most famous seasons in Major League Soccer history.

"Uh ohhhhhhh. Looks like the band is getting back together..........."

- Union youth technical dirctor Alecko Eskandarian on Twitter, August 11, 2011

When the Philadelphia Union signed Freddy Adu during the summer, it stirred a lot of memories among observers of Adu's previous years spent under Peter Nowak's tutelage.

For Alecko Eskandarian, the memories stirred were of something much greater. The "band" to which Eskandarian referred in the tweet quoted above was one of the most successful and entertaining teams in Major League Soccer history: the 2004 D.C. United squad that stormed through the playoffs and won the MLS Cup.

That championship still defines Nowak's career as a coach to this day. So does Nowak's relationship with Adu, which has become genuinely warm after a fractious period in years gone by.

But the ties between Nowak and Adu are not the only ones that bind this year's Union squad to that D.C. squad of seven years ago. In fact, there are a total of nine people employed by the Union in some form who were directly involved in that United championship run.

They have come to PPL Park from many different directions in their lives. With the MLS Cup playoffs starting tonight, now is a good time to walk along that bridge from the past to the present.

Over the past few weeks, I have spent a lot of time talking to those nine people in order to put this piece together. You may know some of them, or you may not. They all have quite a story to tell.

The quotes you will read below come from the present. The rest is drawn from Major League Soccer's history books, which now await their next chapter.

Freddy Adu was 14 years old when D.C. United played its first match of his rookie season, against the San Jose Earthquakes at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington.

On April 3, 2004, a national television audience tuned to ABC and cast its eyes upon the nation's capital. At the time, RFK was still among the grandest stages in American soccer. Only two markets, Los Angeles and Columbus, had soccer-specific stadiums. Soccer-crazed cities such as Toronto, Seattle and Portland were still years away from joining MLS.

But United had a stadium that felt like a home, more silverware in its trophy case in it than any other club in the league, and an unprecedented level of hype around one player: Adu.

As 24,603 fans made their way along East Capitol Street that afternoon, two questions were on everyone's minds: Would Adu be in the starting lineup? And could this 14-year-old kid possibly be as good as advertised?

There was a lot of pressure on D.C. to perform, and to perform in a certain way.

For a portion of the United squad, it wasn't a bad thing. Eskandarian was among the players who did not mind.

"It was something that we all strived for playing in MLS, feeling like we don't get enough media attention," he said.

But for Adu, Eskandarian said, "the expectations were totally unrealistic."

How so? J.P. Dellcamera, the Union's TV play-by-play announcer, was at RFK that afternoon to call the game for ABC. As he put it, Adu's burden wasn't just created by media hype.

"[Adu] was 14, playing with players some of whom are double his age and more," Dellacamera said. "In the locker room with them, when you think about it, if you had a 14-year-old son, you wouldn't want him hanging around with guys who are 32 or 33 years old."

But there Adu was, getting dressed for the game alongside veterans such as Jaime Moreno and Earnie Stewart.

The public didn't care whether it was awkward or not. They demanded to see the new star of American soccer.

"I just remember the pressure on me that first game: everybody had to know if he was starting," Dellacamera said. "Everyone kept saying: 'Find out if he's starting, find out of he's starting.' And Peter wouldn't tell me."

As it turned out, Adu did not start. He entered the game as a substitute for Eskandarian in the 71st minute. D.C. won the game, 2-1, with Eskandarian scoring what proved to be the winner in the 39th minute. The season was under way.

Four months and two weeks later, the regular season concluded. D.C. won its final three games to finish second in the East. Two of those wins came against the team then known as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars, with Adu scoring the winner in the first.

Since MLS' inception, the two Northeast clubs had contested the league's hottest rivalry. The temperature was about to go up even more.

For as many times as United and the MetroStars faced off in Major League Soccer's first eight years, they had not met in the playoffs since 1996 - the league's inaugural season. That added even more spice to their two-game series, which started on October 23 at Giants Stadium.

After a cagey, scoreless first half, D.C. broke through with goals from Earnie Stewart and Alecko Eskandarian in the second half for a 2-0 win. A week later in Washington, a chippy second leg of the series featured seven yellow cards in the first hour. Jaime Moreno finally put the series away with a goal in the 85th minute, and Bryan Namoff made the aggregate score 4-0 in the 89th.

Eskandarian's roots in the Garden State made him a focal point in that series. He attended the prestigious Bergen Catholic High School, and his father, Andranik, played at Giants Stadium for the NASL's New York Cosmos.

But Eskandarian wasn't the only D.C. player who knew the swamps of north Jersey well. Rookie midfielder Josh Gros, a Rutgers alum who grew up in Mechanicsburg, Pa., was the first substitute off the bench in both legs of the series.

His assist on Moreno's goal at RFK capped off a debut season in which he played in 29 of 30 regular-season games and logged over 2,200 minutes of playing time.

Gros now works as the Union's team coordinator, handling a lot of behind-the-scenes issues on game days and at practices. But he hasn't forgotten that about New York series, and how it served as a launching pad for United's playoff run.

"We played really well in both games," he said. "Going back home with a 2-0 lead was a big boost that carried into the conference final."

Nick Sakiewicz, the Philadelphia Union's CEO, was the president and general manager of the MetroStars in 2004. For New York's team, it was an eighth consecutive year of failure to win a domestic trophy of any kind.

(That streak now stands at 16 years, as many of you politely reminded the fans at Red Bull Arena earlier this month.)

At the time, the MetroStars were led by future U.S. national team coach Bob Bradley. But Sakiewicz paid close attention to the other bench. In just his first year as a manager, Peter Nowak had decisively beaten a man he had played for just two years earlier in Chicago.

"I wanted that guy on my team," Sakiewicz said of Nowak. "It's the mentality and the culture and the attitude."

Sakiewicz said Nowak has brought a similar culture to the Union's locker room.

"It's not always when times are good, but when times are tough," Sakiewicz said. "When we were in our eight-game winless streak, it was a situation where we didn't win a game but we were picking up a point here and a point there. It was that attitude, that mentality, that kept the locker room together."

Nowak certainly had D.C.'s locker room together after knocking out the MetroStars. Things got even better the next day, as the fourth-seeded New England Revolution upset the Columbus Crew, 2-1 on aggregate.

Columbus had won the Supporters' Shield that year, as the team with the best regular-season record in MLS. After a 1-0 victory at Gillette Stadium, New England sealed the series win at Crew Stadium with an 81st-minute goal from Taylor Twellman.

Thanks to the man who now works as the Union's television color commentator, United would be hosting the Eastern Conference Final.

Taylor Twellman called it "the most exciting game ever."

Alecko Eskandarian called it "a game for the ages for sure," and "the best game I've ever been a part of."

The 2004 Eastern Conference final between the New England Revolution and D.C. United still stands as one of the great games in Major League Soccer history.

There were stars all over the field. New England had Twellman, Shalrie Joseph, Steve Ralston and a precocious rookie named Clint Dempsey. D.C. had Eskandarian, Jaime Moreno, Freddy Adu and Christian Gomez.

It's hard to find video of the match online, so I turned to an old friend for help. Dave Brett Wasser maintains an exhaustive archive of American soccer games going back to the NASL days, and he sent me a DVD of the D.C.-New England clash.

I hadn't seen the footage in years, but it is just as entertaining now as it was back then.

Eskandarian opened the scoring in the 11th minute with a rocket from the edge of the 18-yard box, and Twellman tied it a few minutes later with a classy volley from close range. By the end of regulation, the score was 3-3, with six different players accounting for the six goals. There were no goals in extra time, so the game went to penalty kicks.

Ben Olsen stepped up first. Moreno was the face of D.C. United, and Gomez was its essential playmaker, but Olsen was the club's soul. It was not surprising that the Harrisburg, Pa., native went on to become United's manager.

It was surprising that his penalty kick was saved by the feet of a diving Matt Reis.

Ralston was up first for New England, and he hit the crossbar. Santino Quaranta was next, and he finally put a ball in the net. Then Reis, of all people, stepped up to the spot, and easily beat United goalkeeper Nick Rimando.

United's third shooter was Freddy Adu. By then, he had turned 15. He wasn't legally able to drive or vote, but he was legally able to take a penalty kick in an Eastern Conference final.

He scored with aplomb, tucking the ball high in the side of the net to Reis' left.

"Honestly, I wasn't nervous at all," Adu said. "I think I was just so excited to be a part of it that I didn't care about anything else at that point."

Twellman and Eskandarian were next. They both scored. Then Rimando stopped Jay Heaps. Moreno, the club legend, had a chance to seal the victory, but his shot was weak and Reis easily saved it. Shalrie Joseph converted his penalty kick, and up stepped Brian Carroll.

Yes, the same Brian Carroll who now anchors the Union's midfield. He was doing the same thing for D.C. back then, and he did it just as well.

"We call him 'Demo' because the guy just does everything perfectly," Adu said.

J.P. Dellacamera described Carroll as "the unsung hero, without a doubt" of the Union's success this year. The moniker was as true back then as it is now.

Twellman only ever played against Carroll, but he has plenty of respect for him.

"I don't think he'd be among the first three or four defensive midfielders taken in a draft of current players, yet I want him on my team," Twellman said.

So there was Carroll, standing at the spot, that mop of blond hair blowing around a bit on a breezy night. He looked up at Reis, and at the black-clad masses jumping on those famous old metal stands. Carroll stepped up to the spot, calm as ever, and buried his shot.

Dempsey was New England's last hope. Rimando stopped him with a dive to his left. He raced away pumping his fists, and RFK Stadium roared as only it can.

A lot of people contributed to that night's win. But look at who participated in the shootout. Of the four United players who scored, three are now with the Union.

"It was a little nerve-wracking, but you just pick your spot and stick with it and do your best," Carroll said of his role in the shootout. "Fortunately it went in, and fortunately Rimando made a great save on the next play to put us through to the final. That was a great experience to be a part of."

United's next destination was the same venue as this year's MLS Cup Final: the Home Depot Center in Carson, California. As with the two teams United had beaten thus far, Peter Nowak had a personal connection to the opposing side.

In the first round of the playoffs, Nowak beat Bob Bradley, the coach he used to play for.

In the second round, Nowak beat a New England team he had refused to play for after being traded there just a year earlier. Nowak chose to retire instead of playing anywhere other than Chicago.

In the final, Nowak faced a team anchored by one of his best friends.

Diego Gutierrez played with Nowak in Chicago from 1998 to 2001. When Gutierrez scored what ended up as the winning goal in the 1998 MLS Cup Final (against D.C. United, of all teams), the assist came from Nowak.

They were close then, and are close now. Last winter, Nowak hired Gutierrez to be the Union's director of scouting and player development.

"I knew for a while that Peter would have his team very well-prepared, and they would be fired up," Gutierrez said of facing Nowak in the 2004 championship game. "He's a guy that is extremely passionate. People listen to him, and people take his lead."

In the 2004 championship game, though, Kansas City took the lead. Barely eight minutes after kickoff, Jose Burciaga ran through a big gap in D.C.'s defense and put Kansas City on the board with a lashed shot from nearly 30 yards.

D.C. needed someone to step up, and Alecko Eskandarian did just that. He scored in the 19th minute to tie the game, then gave D.C. the lead in the 23rd minute after getting away with a hand ball as he ran toward the box.

"It's the best feeling I could have as a pro," Eskandarian said of his two-goal performance. "To be able to go through all the ups and downs with the team, and get to the most important point in a season, and get to have an impact on the result is by far the most gratifying and humbling experience that I've ever faced."

United led by a 3-2 margin in the 65th minute, but was down a man after Dema Kovalenko blocked a shot in the box with his hand in the 57th minute. Nowak decided it was time for some fresh legs. So he summoned Adu to replace Eskandarian.

Adu rose to the moment. Although the score remained 3-2 for the rest of the match, Adu's energy allowed him to run hard at Kansas City's defense. Gutierrez felt the full effect.

"He certainly came in there and made a difference, stretching the field and getting some important minutes," Gutierrez said of Adu. "I remember a particular play where I was running down the field and it was late in the game. He got the ball and I had to defend him one-on-one. It was a hot afternoon, and he was fresh and I was tired and cramping. But I was still trying to battle and hang in there."

Gutierrez did hang in there, and managed to get the ball away from Adu. The play ended up being featured in MLS' highlight package from the game, which you can see on YouTube here.

Although Gutierrez won that battle, D.C. United won the game - and its fourth MLS Cup. Nowak, Adu, Carroll, Eskandarian and Gros were champions.

Now they are back together with the Union. Seven years is not a long time in a lot of sports, but it's nearly half of the lifespan of Major League Soccer so far.

So what has changed since then?

Eskandarian, Gros and Twellman all saw their careers cut short due to concussions.

Eskandarian remained in D.C. until 2006, then bounced around a few teams in MLS from 2007 to 2009. His playing career came to a premature end at just 27 years old, when a ball struck him in the face and caused a concussion and a broken nose.

Gros, who was a rookie in 2004, also had to quit playing due to concussions. The Rutgers alum had to stop his career in 2007 after suffering multiple head injuries that year.

Twellman suffered a concussion and a neck injury in 2008. After attempting to recover for nearly two years, he finally decided to retire.

Twellman has since become a vocal advocate for researching the impact of concussions on athletes, and has started a foundation to lead the charge. He has also enjoyed a successful career as a television presenter and analyst.

Gutierrez retired after the 2008 season, thankfully not because of a major injury. After a 12-year career as one of the most solid and dependable players in MLS, he became a founding partner in a sports agency firm. That allowed him to build connections as a scout that would eventually serve the Union very well.

Freddy Adu, Brian Carroll and Peter Nowak are still going. Together, they have set their sights on another trip to the Home Depot Center for an MLS Cup Final.

Adu has certainly changed since 2004. He is older, obviously, but also wiser and more mature.

Nick Sakiewicz took the full measure of those changes when he brought Adu to the Union.

"I've always said that he went to Europe a boy and came back a man," Sakiewicz said. "He's showing the maturity, showing the hard work and the grit that it takes to be a top professional in this league."

Brian Carroll reflected on how Adu's game has evolved on the field.

"He's gotten stronger and a little bit faster, and is a little bit more experienced now," Carroll said. "He knows what to do on and off the ball, and on both sides of the ball."

Although Adu had some tough times in Europe, Twellman still believes Adu has the ability to be a special player.

"The bigger the crowd, he's not scared of the limelight," Twellman said. "If he has matured – which he has, he's been humbled – I hope that eight years in, now is the time that he should take his career by the reins. And if anyone's going to do that for him, it's Peter Nowak."

For as much as Adu has changed, the consensus is that Carroll is the same as he as ever been.

"Brian Carroll when he was, what, 22, is the same as he is now at 29 or 30," Adu said, and that was just the start of the universal acclimation.

"He's one of the best players I've ever played with," Josh Gros said. "He doesn't get a lot of the accolades, but you know what you're going to get out of him every game. He works hard, he's consistent, he's a great teammate. I can't say enough good things about him."

Gutierrez said that Carroll's game has only gotten better with age.

"He's always been an extremely efficient and disciplined player," Gutierrez explained. "Now he's even more efficient because he's older and smarter. He doesn't have to run as much but he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. He reads the game extremely well."

Has Nowak changed? That depends on who you ask.

"Maybe he's gotten a little bit less intense, but maybe that's a good thing," Carroll said. He still has his intense days and he'll always be fiery, but I think he brings the best out of us as a group and as individuals with his techniques."

Adu told me that he knows exactly what to expect from Nowak in the weeks to come.

"I know he's going to keep me on my toes," Adu said. "Whether it's starting a game or coming off the bench, whatever you have to do to help the team, you do it. It's a team, and everybody works so hard to get a chance to play, and the reason why everybody is here is because the coach believes that everybody has specific qualities to help the team"

Eskandarian said he has enjoyed getting to know Nowak from a different perspective, now that he has taken charge of the Union's youth squads.

"He's my favorite coach that I've ever played for," Eskandarian said. "It's great to now learn more from him, and ask him his philosophy, and principles and all that stuff. It's been an absolute joy, and a great learning experience for me."

J.P. Dellacamera reflected on Nowak's transition from player to coach, and said that Nowak's character is much the same now as it was then.

"He has a tremendous work ethic, studies the game, knows the game, knows what it takes to play at the highest of levels, and how to communicate that," Dellacamera said. "He commands something. As a coach, you can't question him and say 'What have you done?' He's done it."

How much of what happened in 2004 can the Union truly draw from in 2011? For that, let's turn to the one person from whom have yet to hear: Peter Nowak himself.

"The most important thing [in 2004] was that the team realized that it was not only good to enter the playoffs," Nowak said. "The team realized weeks before we advanced to the playoffs and started the first round, that it's not just to be satisfied that we are in the postseason."

Nowak emphasized that his 2004 team had a lot more experience than this Union squad. Not just in the playoffs, but over entire careers of players such as Jaime Moreno, Mike Petke and Dema Kovalenko.

"They knew how to be and how to manage their routines going into the playoffs," Nowak said. "With this team, there are a lot of question marks, a lot of what-ifs. So you've got to scratch that right off the bat, going into Monday's training. Don't worry about anything else, don't worry about what record we have against [Houston] - that is out the window right now."

One of the question marks Nowak referred to is whether his team fully understands the do-or-die implications of a playoff series.

"You cannot switch off and switch on, and then think that last week didn't work out so we will make it better next week," Nowak said.

I asked Nowak whether the message has been getting through.

"They are still young, they still need time, but we have enough veterans and guys who understand the grit [involved] that they are going to get better," Nowak said. "Maybe not during the whole stretch of the playoffs, but at some point they are going to be much better."

Nowak realizes that he has a particular responsibility for getting the point across.

"If you win, you go to the conference final - if not, you go fishing," he said. "I put on the line three simple factors: being simple, being efficient and being effective. It's not who's going to play the prettiest soccer, it's going to be who's going to win the games and win the series."

Nowak admitted, though, that he "also cannot overwhelm them with information about this and that. They need to adjust on the field and take charge of making their own decisions."

That last sentence, I think, is the real key. For as much as the Union have grown this year, right now they have to grow a little bit more. The pressure is higher, the volume is louder, and the margin for error is razor-thin.

As someone who witnessed D.C. United's 2004 championship run firsthand, I think that the Union have it in them to make a deep playoff run. They are perfectly positioned in the Eastern Conference standings, not having to worry about a wild card team coming out of the West.

If the breaks go right and the Union host the Eastern Conference final, it's quite possible that Nowak and company will indeed make it back to the Home Depot Center for the championship game.

This much I am sure of. The band that Eskandarian referred to is indeed back together. It has spent the last few months making sure its instruments are in tune, that the amps work, and that the stage is set up properly for the big show.

Now it's time to see whether they can make some music.