WASHINGTON - Ninety minutes before D.C. United and the New England Revolution took the field to play in what ended up being the most thrilling conference championship in MLS history, Dema Kovalenko and Ryan Nelsen slowly jogged around the field together.
They'd stop, look around at the fans starting to pile in, and you could see the angst in their faces. With yellow card accumulation forcing both players to sit out the Eastern Conference final, all Nelsen and Kovalenko could do was watch from the bench, hoping and praying that they'd live to see another day and get to play in the MLS Cup title match next weekend.
After their teammates survived 120 minutes of soccer and a grueling penalty kick shootout to beat the Revs and move on to play the Kansas City Wizards at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles on Nov. 14, no one looked as relieved as Kovalenko in the United locker room.
"It's so hard to watch, especially in a game like that," said the veteran midfielder. "I yelled as much as I could, but it's hard when you can't go out there and help make a difference. Thankfully, they came through to give me another chance to play."
Even with Kovalenko and Nelsen back in the mix, the league's ninth title game will be an excellent matchup, pitting a team like K.C. that prides itself on defensive play against an offensive juggernaut like D.C., as was seen against New England.
"Bob Gansler's been there for years and they always have such a great defense," said United defender Mike Petke. "It's gonna be a good battle."
The finalists went 1-1 against each other during the regular season, and haven't played since Kansas City's 1-0 victory back on July 10 at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Wizards are coming off a brilliant two weeks of soccer, capped by a commanding 2-0 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Western Conference final on Friday night. That win came less than a week after crawling back from a 2-0 deficit in aggregate goals to beat the defending MLS Cup champion San Jose Earthquakes 3-0 last weekend in K.C.
"Kansas City is a very good team," said United head coach Peter Nowak. "They're experienced. Most of the guys played in the final in 2000 (Kansas City beat Nowak's Chicago Fire 1-0). They're a very hard-working team like New England."
United goes from having to deal with Taylor Twellman and Pat Noonan to facing the dangerous striker partnership of Davy Arnaud and Josh Wolff.
Including the playoffs, this twosome has accounted for 21 of the team's 43 goals. While Arnaud is basking in the limelight after scoring both goals for K.C. against San Jose, Wolff is the key to this attack, as his breakaway speed and playmaking ability -- check out the ball he played to Arnaud for the first goal on Friday night -- can turn any match around. The veteran U.S. National Team striker will be talked about all week long by the D.C. players.
"He's a very good player who'll we have to watch closely," said Kovalenko, who played with Wolff at Chicago before they both switched teams before the 2003 season. "It'll be just as hard for our defense tracking him as it was against someone like Twellman (tonight)."
For what it's worth, Kansas City didn't lose a game at the Home Depot Center this season (1-0-1) and holds an all-time record of 2-1-1. The lone setback came in the opening of the HDC on June 14, 2003.
At the same time, United is expected to have the crowd support behind them, considering that Freddymania is alive and well in La-La Land and that the Wizards just knocked off the local side.
The most intriguing matchup to look ahead for is the battle that will take place between the Kansas City back four and D.C. United's forward tandem of Jaime Moreno and Alecko Eskandarian.
There isn't a better pair of centerbacks in MLS than Jimmy Conrad and Nick Garcia. Both players are extremely physical, good organizers out of the back and play the type of heart-on-your-sleeve ball that has defined Bob Gansler's side this season.
To say this unit has been stingy as of late would be an understatement.
Along with the stellar play of goalkeeper Bo Oshoniyi, the defense has given up a mere three goals in the past nine games, powering the team to a 6-1-2 mark since mid-September.
A finalist for the league's Defender of the Year, Conrad summed it up best once the series with L.A. was a memory.
"As a whole on defense we just try to make it as difficult as possible," said Conrad. "And if you are going to beat us, it is going to have to be a pretty good goal."
And that's exactly what United's strikers can do.
Both Moreno and Eskandarian scored picturesque goals against the Revs, just as they've seemed to do all year. Moreno's one-on-one ability will challenge K.C.'s backs, as will Eskandarian's pace and knack for scoring timely goals in the biggest of situations.
Neither team will be afraid to foul, either. With Nelsen and Kovalanko back, D.C. United will be more physical than it was against the Revs on Saturday night. And the Wizards certainly showed their mettle on Friday night against L.A. in a match that was stalled several times due to hard fouls and altercations.
"It'll be very tough for both teams - a real battle is what you'll see," said Kovalenko. "It's not going to be pretty."
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com