United Is in Jamaica on Business

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

D.C. United arrived at another warm-weather destination this week, the fourth stop during a nomadic preseason adventure leading to its MLS opener at the end of the month. But instead of engaging in training sessions and exhibitions as it did in Florida, California and Texas, United has gone to Jamaica on a serious mission.

For the third time in four years, United is preempting its league schedule to play in the Champions' Cup, an eight-team tournament that decides the best club in North and Central America and the Caribbean. The first leg of the quarterfinal series with Harbour View begins tonight in Kingston, with the return match Tuesday at RFK Stadium.

"This will be a good test," said United Coach Tom Soehn, whose team has not played a meaningful game since Nov. 1 and introduced several new players into the system during training camp. "We've made a lot of progress. You're never completely satisfied, but for this stage, the quality of soccer and fitness is better."

United secured its spot by winning the 2007 Supporters' Shield, awarded to the club with the most points in the MLS regular season. MLS Cup champion Houston is the other U.S. representative in a 46-year-old tournament that has not been won by a U.S. team since Los Angeles in 2000. The champion will represent the region at the Club World Cup in December in Japan.

This is the final installment of the Champions' Cup, which will be replaced by the Champions League and be styled after the wildly popular European event of the same name. The new version will run from late this summer until next spring and include four MLS clubs -- United, Houston, New England and Chivas USA.

Seeing the tournament as an opportunity to build name recognition abroad, United has always taken the event seriously. But the early starting date has exposed the club's fitness and chemistry issues and resulted in defeat in the semifinals to seasoned Mexican clubs. D.C. has also fallen excruciatingly short in other recent international events held at various times of the year.

Three years ago, United defeated Harbour View in the Champions' Cup quarterfinals by a 4-2 aggregate score, and this year, despite the Jamaicans being in midseason form, D.C. will be favored to move into the April semifinals against 2007 champion Pachuca (Mexico) or Motagua (Honduras).

"It was slow going," defender Bryan Namoff said of training camp, which began in late January. "But in San Antonio [last week] you really could start to see that the fitness and comfort with each other is there. At first, it was choppy, a lot of individual stuff, but now there is more fluidity and team unity."

Among the adjustments has been learning to play alongside Argentine midfielder Marcelo Gallardo, who this winter was signed to the biggest contract in United history, an estimated $1 million per season. Newly acquired players are also expected to start in the two central defensive roles (Colombia's Gonzalo Mart¿nez and Argentina's Gonzalo Peralta) while Zach Wells, obtained from Houston, is likely to play in goal.

United Notes: Harbour View's entire roster is Jamaican, except for defender Ronny Amagua¿a, who played at Wheaton High School. His younger brother, Jason, is an operations manager for United. . . . United cut Josh Gardner, David Blumer and Galen Thompson but will continue to consider defender Dane Murphy (Virginia) and Brazilian forward Cezar.

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