On the Road, United Is Right at Home
Every MLS team controlled by Anschutz is welcome at the Colorado ranch, which is roughly the size of the District of Columbia. United's last visit was in 2001. The NHL's Los Angeles Kings, co-owned by Anschutz, stopped by last fall. Chris Henderson, a midfielder for the MLS's Rapids, was married on the property. MLS executives have held league meetings here, including one a few weeks ago.
Normally, an MLS team will take only 16 players (about two-thirds of the roster) on a road trip, but for this journey by United, everyone was invited. Even the injured players and strength and conditioning coach were here.
"It's a long season and this gives everyone an opportunity to come together as a group," Payne said. "This has been a rough stretch physically and I think we needed a little break. When you're here, you forget about everything else. You can decompress and clear your mind. We needed that."
United Coach Peter Nowak, who has been at the ranch several times after playing for the Chicago Fire, found a favorite quiet spot, in the shade next to a little bridge over a stream, where he cools his feet.
Trout and bass were caught and released in streams and ponds, but most of the time, the only thing biting were the re-emerging mosquitoes.
Several players, including Petke, defender Bryan Namoff and goalkeeper Nick Rimando, quickly got the hang of skeet shooting.
Most took a ride on the horses, with the assistance of a ranch hand who competes for Colorado State's rodeo team. Petke, however, didn't last long. "I don't like not having any control," he said. "Four minutes, that was it."
The golf course was the most popular destination -- and some in the delegation mastered the short but narrow layout. Assistant coach Mark Simpson, who's about a 3 handicap, was the best. Others had trouble clearing the tee box, drawing giggles from teammates.
A few players and coaches were up before sunrise Sunday to get started, but they weren't the first ones on the course. After a long night of frivolity, some had gone straight to the first tee instead of to bed. Nine holes, a hearty breakfast and then finally sleep.
Forward Freddy Adu and midfielder Dema Kovalenko got into spirited putting contests, with howls from observers on the fringe after each near-miss.
"First time with club!" Kovalenko, a lefty, shouted after draining a long putt. "You see that, Freddy Adu, you see that?"
Kovalenko, a Ukrainian midfielder and United's fiercest player on the field, often tried to spook his various putting opponents by shouting in Russian as they prepared for a tap-in; it usually worked.
Adu, 14, had a tough time convincing his teammates that he shot 37 on one particular nine-hole outing. Payne, part of Adu's foursome, vouched for him. Adu, who has played Congressional and other challenging Montgomery County courses, displayed a smooth stroke.
Midfielder Nana Kuffour, a shy teenager from Ghana who arrived in this country just last month, gave golf a try for the first time. Mostly, though, he enjoyed driving the carts, spinning along the paths with a giddy grin.
"Sometimes it's good to not think about soccer," Nowak said. "This trip, it's about the people, the team, our family. It helps build better relationships and lets us trust each other more. We can relax and have fun, and then after a couple of days, everyone knows it's back to business."
On the final morning of their retreat, players and staff awoke early to fit in one final round of golf or try to snag another fish. They then gathered for the only soccer-related activity of the visit: an hour of training on the cart paths around the golf course and sprints on one of the fairways.
After lunch, the players and their ton of gear were driven in a six-vehicle convoy to a dusty turn-off at the edge of the ranch, across the road from the site of a 19th-century military garrison, where the team bus was waiting to take them to the airport.
Namoff, one of the last to board, said to no one in particular, "Back to the real world."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company