United Troubled By Shaky Defense

United's Rod Dyachenko and Facundo Erpen celebrate after Christian Gomez's tying goal in the second half against the Red Bulls on Sunday.
United's Rod Dyachenko and Facundo Erpen celebrate after Christian Gomez's tying goal in the second half against the Red Bulls on Sunday. (By Manuel Balce Ceneta -- Associated Press)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Facundo Erpen confessed to making several mistakes during D.C. United's wobbly performance against New York on Sunday, a 90-minute misadventure that nearly cost his club a berth in MLS's Eastern Conference final.

While the Argentine left back's problems persisted throughout the evening, two glaring errors in a 53-second span of the second half caused the biggest crisis.

With about 20 minutes left and the match scoreless, Erpen overcommitted to a New York throw-in and allowed Red Bulls forward Josmer Altidore to gain a step on him just outside the penalty area. Unable to recover, Erpen grabbed the 16-year-old forward and was called for a foul.

On the subsequent free kick by Amado Guevara, Erpen got caught behind teammate Alecko Eskandarian and New York's Dema Kovalenko in the middle of the box, allowing Altidore to slide into open space and nod an 11-yard header into the left corner of the net.

Although United came back to tie the match -- and win the two-game, total-goals series by a 2-1 aggregate score -- the substandard effort by Erpen and his defensive colleagues has brought into question the club's ability to stop the New England Revolution's menacing attack this Sunday in the conference final at RFK Stadium.

"I know I had some mistakes," Erpen said yesterday. "I made some passes that I never did before. Now I need more focus because if we lose the one game against New England, we are out. All the defenders have to concentrate and do the right thing -- no mistakes."

There were an abundance of mistakes against the Red Bulls and, while every starter except for perhaps Christian Gomez and goalkeeper Troy Perkins labored, Erpen's blunders stood out.

He had three poor touches in an early five-minute span and, a few moments before Altidore's goal, attempted a risky, wild volley 30 yards from the goal he was defending.

"Facundo's decisions were not the greatest in this game," Coach Peter Nowak said. "It's just pure concentration and focus. . . . Even if you are in trouble, [it's an] easy clearance -- he cannot do it in this case. It must be better, that's for sure."

Nowak is not expected to change his defensive personnel for the New England match, but could give midfielder Josh Gros more defensive responsibilities. Many United opponents in recent weeks have had success pressuring United's three-man back line and taking advantage of channels between D.C.'s defenders as well as space between the backs and midfielders.

United will have to be particularly attentive against the Revolution and its array of attacking options. New England was perfectly comfortable running at D.C.'s defense in a regular season meeting a month ago, a 2-1 Revolution win.

"They have great attacking players that can score on half-chances," right back Bryan Namoff said. "We can't give them the time and space that we gave New York."

United has other lingering issues. Against the Red Bulls, Ben Olsen and Brian Carroll did not distribute the ball from deep-lying midfield positions with their usual efficiency. Gros and Freddy Adu failed to cross consistently (until Gros launched a long ball in the 86th minute that led to Gomez's equalizer) and forward Jaime Moreno lacked influence.

"It was a nightmare," forward Alecko Eskandarian said of the entire team's defensive effort. "We've got to do better than that or we're going to get punished."

MLS Notes : Bob Bradley, who in his first year guided Chivas USA to a 25-point improvement from last season, was named coach of the year. Nowak and Chicago's Dave Sarachan were the other finalists. Bradley also won in 1998 with Chicago.

Chivas USA's Jonathan Bornstein, a fourth-round draft pick who played several positions while starting every game and contributed six goals and four assists, was named rookie of the year. Teammate Sacha Kljestan and Real Salt Lake's Mehdi Ballouchy were the runners-up. . . .

Olsen and Gomez did not participate in full workouts yesterday in order to fully recover from Sunday's match. Neither is injured. . . . Adu, the only D.C. player to receive a yellow card Sunday, would be suspended from MLS Cup if he gets a yellow during a United victory this weekend.

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