D.C. United: 'We're Not Used to This'

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 2, 2007

D.C. United began the MLS season with the reigning most valuable player, the league's top defender and goalkeeper, and a new coach who quickly forged a bond with his players. It boasted seven returning players who had passed through U.S. national team training camps and signed a pair of skilled Brazilians. And while most of the league was in docile preseason settings, United was facing seasoned Latin American clubs in competitive matches.

But despite those advantages, despite returning most of the personnel who finished with the best regular season record last year, despite being the consensus favorite for a fifth league title, United has been an enormous disappointment this spring.

Not only has it dropped its first three games and joined expansion Toronto as the only clubs without a win or tie, United has looked listless in the process. An attack that led the league in scoring a year ago has produced only three goals and alarmingly few opportunities. The defense, third best in 2006, has yielded seven goals and made several glaring mistakes.

Two longtime starters have been benched at halftime of the last two matches -- one (Facundo Erpen) did not start the next game after being pulled and the other (Brian Carroll) is in danger of losing his job when United hosts the New England Revolution tomorrow night at RFK Stadium.

"Right now, it's tough times here. We're not used to this," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "It's going to be a real gut check to see how we respond. . . . Expectations were high with us, maybe too high, and maybe we got too comfortable with who we thought we were. That's going to change. It's got to change, or it's going to be no playoffs for D.C. United."

There have been few signs of improvement. While the defense made strides in the 1-0 loss at Columbus on Saturday, the attack has been sloppy, predictable and unimaginative. United has already set a club record with six consecutive regular season losses (dating from last season) and another defeat tomorrow would match the worst start in team history (0-4 in 1996).

Since starting with a 13-1-6 record last year, United is 5-11-5 against MLS opponents in all competitions (regular season, U.S. Open Cup and playoffs) and has not won two straight since last July.

While players, coaches and executives alike have expressed confidence in turning things around, the losses have had a noticeable impact. A once-confident group has turned tentative at times, seemingly afraid of making another mistake.

"When you're losing, it's the demeanor of people and their attitudes," defender Bobby Boswell said. "You don't see the laughter, the fun, as when you are winning, and for good reason. When you are doing poorly, it's something you should control and it's a matter of whether you can turn it around."

Before Monday's practice, in a closed locker room, first-year coach Tom Soehn expressed his displeasure during an impassioned address. "It was intense -- short and to the point," Boswell said.

Said Soehn: "We cleared the air a little bit."

After training that day, the players gathered at midfield with assistant coach Chad Ashton for a 10- to 15-minute talk about the state of the club. Yesterday, Soehn closed practice to the media to work on possible tactical and lineup changes.

"We've hit rock bottom, but we're working hard and we are confident we will come out of it," Argentine midfielder Christian Gomez, the league's MVP last year, said through an interpreter.

Tactically, United is not fooling anyone. Without effective flank play, United has concentrated its attack in the middle of the field and faced a crowded path. Both Gomez and forward Jaime Moreno, the club's all-time leading scorer, have struggled to regain their creative form, leaving United without consistent possession. "We are making too many mistakes, we're late, and it seems the opponent is anticipating us in every aspect of the game," Gomez said.

Despite the poor start, United technical director Dave Kasper said he has not initiated trade talks and that the club has no plans to drastically alter the roster. "Collectively, we are a very good group, and it's time for all of us to dig deeper, work harder and be smarter," he said. "We have a group that we believe in, we have a group that we believe is going to turn this thing around."

Kasper did say, though, that the club will continue to monitor the international market and reevaluate the team's situation when the foreign acquisition window reopens June 15. United does not plan this year to pursue a world superstar, such as Los Angeles-bound David Beckham, under MLS's new designated player rule because of severe salary cap and roster implications.

Soehn believes he has gotten the team's attention and hopes the results will begin to turn in their favor.

"I've challenged individuals and I've challenged the team to step forward and analyze what they are about and show the organization and myself what they are made of," he said. "So far I've seen a response, but we'll see what happens on Thursday."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company