CARSON, Calif., April 1 -- When D.C. United arrived in Southern California this week for Saturday's season opener against Chivas USA, the players and coaches couldn't help but think back to the team's previous visit here. Four and a half months had passed, but the memories of the MLS Cup victory over Kansas City at Home Depot Center were as vivid as the view of the San Gabriel Mountains on this smog-free Friday morning.
"It feels like MLS Cup, to be honest," defender Mike Petke said. "The same hotel, the weather, the last taste that was left in our mouth, and we're treating it like a big game. We're really excited to get it started."
D.C. United expects midfielder Christian Gomez, left, to be healthier this year after picking him up late last season.
(John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
_____United vs. Chivas USA_____
Where: Home Depot Center, Carson, Calif.
When: 3 p.m.
TV: WJLA-7, WMAR-2.
Radio: WMET-1160 (English), WACA-1540 (Spanish).
D.C. Probable Starters (3-5-2 formation): GK Nick Rimando; Ds Brandon Prideaux, Bobby Boswell, Mike Petke; MFs Josh Gros, Ben Olsen, Brian Carroll, Christian Gomez, Steve Guppy; Fs Jaime Moreno, Alecko Eskandarian.
Chivas Probable Starters (4-3-3): GK Brad Guzman; Ds Ezra Hendrickson, Ryan Suarez, Douglas Sequeira, Orlando Perez; MFs Francisco Gomez, Hector Cuadros, Ramon Ramirez; Fs Arturo Torres, Isaac Romo, Matt Taylor.
Added forward Alecko Eskandarian, MVP of the title game in November: "It didn't seem so long ago, but here we are starting a new year now and we've got to defend our championship. A lot more pressure, a lot more expectations and I think we hold ourselves to a higher standard this year than last year."
With most of its top players back, United returns as the preseason favorite to win the Eastern Conference and play in the title game in Dallas's new stadium in the fall.
Eskandarian and Jaime Moreno form one of the top front lines in the league and a fitter Christian Gomez, who was signed late last season, will orchestrate the attack again. There's extraordinary depth in midfield, bolstered by the addition of English league veteran Steve Guppy, 36, whose expertise is left-side crosses. He essentially replaced Earnie Stewart, who decided to finish his long career in his native Netherlands after two MLS seasons.
United can also boast two quality goalkeepers in Nick Rimando and Troy Perkins; several promising young players, including 15-year-old Freddy Adu and newcomer Clyde Simms; and an intense head coach, Peter Nowak, who has learned his lessons from a sometimes trying rookie season last year.
However, United's success likely will be dictated by the play of its defense, which will be without all-star Ryan Nelsen, now starring for Blackburn Rovers in the prestigious English Premier League. Despite searching all over the world for a replacement, United's front office came up empty and the team will enter the season relying heavily on Petke, veterans Brandon Prideaux and Bryan Namoff, enigmatic David Stokes and three youngsters.
The team broke off talks this week with an unidentified Chilean defender because of financial differences but remains in contact with an Argentine who wouldn't be available until June or July. United has already passed on a Brazilian, an Argentine and an Ecuadoran while also looking around Europe for candidates.
"If something comes along that's interesting, we'll look at it. If not, we're happy with what we have in the back," United technical director Dave Kasper said. "We'll give the opportunity to a younger player, and you hope they'll run with it."
Namoff, the starting right back, will miss the opener because of a back strain, which creates a slot for undrafted rookie Bobby Boswell (Florida International University), who likely will play in the middle of a three-man back line and be flanked by Petke and Prideaux. Stokes, in his third year, is the other option.
Boswell "has a very good opportunity here," Petke said. "It's very rare nowadays that a rookie steps into an important role like that, but he did well in preseason. He's going to make some mistakes, you have to realize that, but it's how he's going to adapt. We're going to help him and we're very comfortable with him in there."
Nowak was quick to point out that the team failed in its season-long search last year to find a big target forward and still ended up winning the championship with Moreno and Eskandarian leading the way.
"This is what we have, this is how the season is going to start," Nowak said. "If anything comes on the market that we're interested in, of course we're going to make a move. . . . [But] we don't know what's going to happen through the season. To make a right move, we have to wait like we did with Gomez," who wasn't acquired until last August and subsequently helped turn around the season.
Besides keeping a close eye on its defense, United must protect against complacency. Late last year, D.C. caught everyone by surprise with a late surge that carried into the postseason, culminating with the 3-2 victory over the Wizards. This year every opponent will be fully prepared for United's rambunctious style.
Nowak plans to use his no-nonsense approach to keep the team on the right course.
"If you talked to the players last year, you heard that they were tired of losing," he said. "The point is that they won't get tired of winning."
United Note: Midfielder Dema Kovalenko, a starter last year who broke his foot in January, has been cleared to begin light workouts and might be available by the end of the month.