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United Is Faced With RFK Makeover

Nats' Baseball Field Takes Shape

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2005; Page D03

As D.C. United players and coaches gathered in a cozy VIP room at RFK Stadium yesterday for the start of training camp, bundled-up workers chiseled at the frozen dirt covering what once was one of the finest soccer fields in the country.

Not a blade of grass or corner kick flag could be found as preparations continue for the arrival of Major League Baseball in just over two months.

United senior vice president Stephen Zack remains comfortable with welcoming a new RFK co-tenant.

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"I don't look!" United senior vice president Stephen Zack said when asked how the construction was progressing. "I'll worry about it when it's time to play."

United will have to share RFK with the Washington Nationals, presenting physical and logistical issues for stadium operations. Bleachers will have to slide back and forth on the east side between sporting events and the infield dirt will need to be blanketed with grass before Major League Soccer matches.

Despite general concerns about the alterations, "everyone involved with the project has been attentive to our needs," Zack said. "Things are going really well."

The first big test will come when a baseball exhibition takes place April 3, United hosts games on April 6 and 9, and the Nationals play their home opener on April 14.

United Coach Peter Nowak said he's not concerned about the new playing surface.

"Nothing changes -- it's still [75] yards wide, [110] yards long with 22 players, a referee, same atmosphere, same ball," he said. "We're not going to change anything. No excuses. It's our job to play the game."

United plans to practice on the adjacent auxiliary fields -- its usual in-season training location -- early next week before heading to Bradenton, Fla., for two weeks of workouts and four exhibitions.

Yesterday the players were in meetings with club officials before turning to the most important item on the agenda: getting fitted for their championship rings, which will be presented at one of the early regular season matches.

Also, the returning players were introduced to Zeferino Soares, a 26-year-old forward from Guinea-Bissau who has been invited to training camp.

Soares came up in the youth system at Portuguese power FC Porto, had three stints with Real Madrid's B team and played top-division soccer in Portugal with Alverca before spending a season in Qatar last year.

"We have seen him play and we're excited about the prospects," said United technical director Dave Kasper, who watched Soares during indoor workouts in Virginia last week and has studied films. "He has a lot to offer."

Soares actually contacted United officials after coming to Washington recently for family reasons. He is a free agent, which means United wouldn't have to pay a transfer fee if the club decides to offer him a contract. A decision is expected in the next few weeks.

"We have to see how he's going to present himself in a real game," Nowak said.

Meantime, United continues to search overseas for a replacement for all-star defender Ryan Nelsen, who signed with the English club Blackburn Rovers this month, but it doesn't appear anything is imminent.

United Notes: A week after agreeing to terms, the club formally announced the re-signing of veteran defender Mike Petke to a multiyear contract. . . . Midfielder Dema Kovalenko, who had surgery for a broken foot two weeks ago, said he expects to be at full strength by late March. . . . United's top draft pick, Wisconsin midfielder Nick Van Sicklen, won't join the team until next week because of illness. . . . Goalkeeper Troy Perkins has returned from a 10-day training assignment with English club Bolton.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company