The first four months of D.C. United's season were marked by the debuts of teenage forward Freddy Adu and first-year coach Peter Nowak, by a parade of injuries and by drastic inconsistency that left the club sliding up and down the Eastern Conference standings.
But with the MLS all-star break having passed and a busy stretch of matches approaching, United's players and coaches are well aware that they need to find a winning rhythm soon.
_____United vs. Earthquakes_____
• Where: Spartan Stadium, San Jose.
• When: 10 p.m.
• TV: Comcast SportsNet.
• Radio: WMET-1160, WACA-1540 (Spanish), WYSK-1350 (Spanish), WPWC-1480 (Spanish).
• Records: United 5-7-6, Earthquakes 5-6-6.
• D.C. Probable Starters (3-5-2 formation): GK Troy Perkins; Ds Bryan Namoff, Ezra Hendrickson, Brandon Prideaux; MFs Earnie Stewart, Brian Carroll, Dema Kovalenko, Freddy Adu, Josh Gros; Fs Jaime Moreno, Alecko Eskandarian.
• San Jose Probable Starters (4-4-2): GK Pat Onstad; Ds Craig Waibel, Ryan Cochrane, Jeff Agoos, Todd Dunivant; MFs Brian Mullan, Richard Mulrooney, Ronnie Ekelund, Ramiro Corrales; Fs Dwayne De Rosario, Brian Ching.
"No more excuses," forward Alecko Eskandarian said. "It's pretty obvious we need to win games and secure a good spot in the playoffs. Obviously, we have had injury problems, but at this point, 18 games into the season, we should be used to each other and be able to turn to guys who can have an impact right away. We've got to pick up our play and get the job done, or we're going to find ourselves in trouble."
United (5-7-6) is stuck in the middle of a mediocre conference with 12 games remaining, but as Chicago (4-8-7) and New England (4-8-6) continue to struggle, this month's schedule presents a golden opportunity for D.C. to make a push for the playoffs. Four of the East's five teams will advance to the postseason, but only the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (8-6-5) and Columbus Crew (6-5-6) have shown they belong.
United's 6-2 victory over the MetroStars five weeks ago was encouraging, but since then, the club has gone 0-2-1 and scored only twice entering tonight's match at San Jose.
"Obviously with the [all-star] break, you try to forget all the bad things that happened in the past and try to keep the good things that you have," midfielder Earnie Stewart said. "We've got to get back to controlling the game when we have the ball and when we don't have the ball. I know that sounds weird, controlling the game when you don't have the ball, but if you feel you're in control and you're in good spots to take possession, you have control. We've got to get back to that."
United is more potent today than it was before the break, with Stewart (groin) and midfielder Ben Olsen (quadriceps) expected to return in some capacity and Eskandarian and midfielder Dema Kovalenko coming back from one-game suspensions. But perhaps the biggest concern is the back line, which will be missing all-star Ryan Nelsen (hernia surgery) and veteran Mike Petke (quadriceps).
United is fortunate San Jose star Landon Donovan is serving a one-game suspension. Otherwise, Donovan's inventiveness combined with striker Brian Ching's finishing touch might have been too much for D.C.'s thin backfield. Still, the Earthquakes are capable of sudden bursts of goals at home. In nine games at Spartan Stadium, they have struck for three goals or more on four occasions and are averaging 2.2 goals there. They've only been beaten once at home, but have been stuck with five ties and just three victories.
United would be happy to sneak out with a tie, considering its MLS-worst road record (1-5-3). D.C. has scored only eight goals away from RFK Stadium, and two of those were own goals.
On May 1, United earned a 1-1 tie with the host Earthquakes but hasn't won in San Jose since 1998.
Besides Donovan, the Earthquakes will be without central defender Troy Dayak, who is serving a one-game suspension. Rookie Ryan Cochrane is expected to fill his slot. Veteran Dwayne De Rosario will probably step in for Donovan and pair with Ching, whose 10 goals have him even with Carlos Ruiz of Los Angeles for the league lead.
"We saw in the game against the MetroStars the potential in these players," said Nowak, whose team will play three games over the next eight days. "We've got to get back to where we were [a few] weeks ago."