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United Finds a Mound of Difference at Home

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 9, 2005; Page D01

D.C. United has always enjoyed a home-field advantage at comfy RFK Stadium, but for tonight's MLS home opener against the Chicago Fire, United might have another slight edge on its side.

United knows where the divots are.

Seats down the left field line offered a good view of United's game against Pumas of Mexico on Wednesday, but some of the players were not pleased with the footing. (Preston Keres - The Washington Post)

_____United vs. Fire_____

Where: RFK Stadium.

When: 7:30 p.m.

Radio: WMET-1160 (English); WACA-1540, WKDV-1460, WLXE-1600, WYSK-1350 (Spanish).

Tickets: $16-$40.

Records: United 1-0, Fire 0-1.

D.C. Probable Starters (3-5-2 formation): GK Nick Rimando; Ds David Stokes, Bobby Boswell, Mike Petke; MFs Josh Gros, Ben Olsen, Brian Carroll, Christian Gomez, Steve Guppy; Fs Jaime Moreno, Alecko Eskandarian.

Chicago Probable Starters (4-4-2): GK Zach Thornton; Ds Kelly Gray, C.J. Brown, Jim Curtin, Ivan Guerrero; MFs Logan Pause, Jesse Marsch, Chris Armas, Justin Mapp; Fs Nate Jaqua, Andy Herron.

_____United Basics_____
United Section
_____Fire Basics_____
Fire page

Like the Boston Celtics on the imperfect parquet floor at the old Boston Garden, United should be able to navigate RFK's new field a little better than its visitors after having played a Champions' Cup game there against Pumas of Mexico on Wednesday.

"It was a little disappointing to see the field how it was," goalkeeper Nick Rimando said yesterday. "Hopefully it gets better and not worse."

Although United officials are generally pleased with the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission's project to cover the Washington Nationals' dirt baseball infield with a thick layer of grass for soccer games, the first match exposed a few flaws. Some spots were a little higher than others -- especially in front of the north goal, where the third base line had been covered -- and divots and seams caused some awkward steps.

United officials said the pitcher's mound, which was pneumatically lowered and covered with turf, was no different from other replacement areas.

"Where the base line is, it's an obvious little roll there," defender Mike Petke said. "The touch is weird, but I didn't feel unsafe. I was just worried about the ball bouncing over [Rimando's] foot or my foot for a breakaway or a goal."

There were no such incidents Wednesday, but Rimando said he avoided kicking the ball on certain spots in fear of it taking a strange bounce. Offensive players are also affected by the new surface, but "there's definitely an advantage for the team attacking that side," Rimando said. "Each team has to play a half of defense on it, so it evens out."

Forward Alecko Eskandarian, who attacked that end in the second half Wednesday, said he inspected the surface before the game to get a feel for what was in store. "I tried to find different spots to avoid, but during the game, you're watching the ball and watching players, you're not worried too much about that stuff," he said. For the United defenders, however, "it's tough to play out of the back over there. We wanted to be safe and just knock it up the field and not deal with that thing. You don't want it to be a situation where you give a back pass to the goalie and it's going to bounce up."

The other end of the field, where the grassy center field and right field are located during baseball games, doesn't present the same challenges.

The changes from baseball diamond to soccer field will cost about $40,000 per conversion. The first transformation took place after the Nationals' exhibition game last Sunday.

Because the temporary sod has remained in place all week for two United matches three days apart, few improvements could be made in time for tonight's game. By the time United plays at home again in two weeks, however, the grounds crew will have removed the turf to allow the Nationals to play their first homestand and then started the soccer conversion all over again. About 15 more conversions will take place before October.

Dave Kasper, United's technical director, said he and other club officials have had discussions with the grounds crew about making slight adjustments in order to level the field.

"The product they put down is a great product," Kasper said. "It has shown everyone that it can and will work. Now they have a starting point, and it's only going to get better."

The greatest concern before the season, Kasper said, was the turf sliding out of place and exposing players to severe leg injuries. But the grass and soil is several inches thick, was packed tightly into the space covering the baseball infield and base lines, and then was pressed by a mini-steamroller.

"We told the players that it's a work in progress," Kasper said. The turf "doesn't move, it doesn't buckle, it doesn't give, and that's the main concern when we've seen this attempted before. It's just a matter of fine-tuning."

Eskandarian put to rest any suggestions that United would play differently because of the field.

"We're going to play our game and do what we always do," he said, "whether we're playing on concrete or grass."

United Note: Defender Brandon Prideaux, out for several days with the flu, didn't practice and is questionable, but Bryan Namoff (back strain) rejoined workouts and might be available after missing the opener as well as Wednesday's game.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company