WASHINGTON -- The black eye that goalkeeper Matt Reis was sporting as he stared down the next D.C. United penalty kick taker told the story. Forget soccer. This looked more like a heavyweight title fight than a Major League Soccer playoff match. But one that went 15 rounds -- not 12 -- as it did some 25 years ago.
Even after six goals were scored, three lead changes had taken place, and 120 minutes of action was played, it was not enough to decide whether D.C. United or the New England Revolution was more worthy of moving on to the MLS Cup final next Sunday in Los Angeles.
Only after 12 agonizing penalty kicks was the final victor decided.
Officially, D.C. United won its fourth conference championship and first since 1999 by knocking in four PKs as opposed to New England's three to settle the 3-3 deadlock.
In reality, though, this wasn't as much about who would win or lose the game, but more about which side would outlast the other.
Revs coach Steve Nicol put it best:
"Certainly, our guys were beginning to flag," said Nicol about the exhaustion of the overtime after a grueling 90 minutes of play. "And, clearly, some of their guys were flagging."
That's one way to say it. All the flagging withstanding, this match was a thriller from the get-go.
It was the type of game that a casual observer who had no rooting interest would have had a hard time turning the station. That would have been the case even if it took place on an early April night or during the Dog Days of August.
Yet, it just so happened to transpire when a berth in the league's championship game was on the line, making it one of the true highlight matches in Major League Soccer's nine-year history.
"Absolutely," said a joyous Mike Petke, who will be going to his first MLS Cup match of his six-year career in the league. "This is the greatest game I've ever been involved with. And it's one the best games I've ever seen. We'd score, then they'd score, then we'd score, then they scored, and so on. What more can you ask?"
The back-and-forth affair saw United score two times in the opening 21 minutes, only to see the Revs counter with two tallies of their own to even the match at 2-2 at halftime.
Christian Gomez appeared to have scored the game-winner when he headed home a bending serve from Earnie Stewart in the 67th minute, but the Revs clawed back to force OT with a Pat Noonan header just five minutes before the end of regulation.
"It was really an emotional roller coaster," said a spent D.C. United head coach Peter Nowak, who is now trying to become the first man to win an MLS Cup as both a coach and a player (1998 with the Chicago Fire). "It was a great game for Major League Soccer."
For MLS, it only could've been better had Freddy Adu finished one of his several dangerous runs he made at the New England defense once he entered the match in the 69th minute. And he nearly did, as his fresh legs and uncanny inability to realize the enormity of the situation as a 15-year-old boy had to put a knot in the stomach of Revs fans every time he touched the ball throughout overtime.
It was one of those games where a player like Adu was invaluable, as it was wide-open and up-and-down much like a pickup basketball game.
"You see this type of thing maybe once in a season - if you're lucky," said Stewart, who thought the level of play demonstrated by both teams was phenomenal. "Both teams played with a lot of heart out there. What you saw is what it's all about."
"It was the most intense, most crazy game," said goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who despite letting up three goals in regulation and three penalty kicks, emerged as the hero by saving Clint Dempsey's effort with a dive to his left. "I'll remember this one a long time."
United midfielder Brian Carroll believes that the attack-and-retreat nature of the match came about because of what was at stake.
"Guys play it more safe this time of the year," said the former Wake Forest All-American. "As the stage gets bigger and bigger, players drop behind the ball when the ball is lost, which contributes to the up-and-down play we saw tonight. That style probably suits them better than us, but we persevered and somehow got it done."
The frantic pace nearly did D.C. United in on several occasions in overtime, as Revs were the more dangerous side.
The teamwork displayed by front-runners Taylor Twellman (one goal) and Pat Noonan (one goal) was outstanding, as the two St. Louis natives linked up time and time again with flick-on headers, quick passes in combinations and even on a deft back heel by Twellman that Noonan rocketed just over the crossbar two minutes before the end of the 30-minute overtime.
"I don't think they would have complained if we won the game," said Nicol. "We can't complain that they won the game."
Nowak agreed. Then again, he was hardly concerned with how close the final margin was. Or how if Dempsey had put his penalty kick past Rimando, the two teams could very well had continued into Sunday morning with the way things were going.
"At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter," said the former Polish international. "We're in the final."
A final that will undoubtedly have a hard time living up to what was seen at RFK between the two best teams in the East.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org