United Hopes to Regain Its Touch at Comfy RFK

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Over the past six weeks, D.C. United played in mud in central California and on a field near San Antonio so narrow that club officials joked they could touch both sidelines by spreading their arms. It practiced at a small college and a youth academy, and in its first meaningful match of the year six days ago, competed on a coarse surface that undermined its ball-possession style.

Predictably, the players were delighted to trot into RFK Stadium yesterday for the first time since last fall and make final preparations for tonight's Champions' Cup quarterfinal finale against Harbour View of Jamaica.

"I know everyone was looking forward to coming home -- it's been a long time -- and hopefully our performance reflects that," goalkeeper Zach Wells said.

In last week's first leg, the clubs played to a 1-1 tie in Kingston, Jamaica. Another draw would necessitate overtime and perhaps penalty kicks, but after spending most of preseason on the road and struggling to find a rhythm on Harbour View's ragged pitch, United is counting on RFK and its immaculate surface to serve as a true home-field advantage.

"People were afraid to take chances and play our game, so they played into the hands of Harbour View," United Coach Tom Soehn said of the lackluster debut. "Here, with the field being better, we are going to work on our strengths, make sure we spread the field, keep possession and make them chase the game."

Not all of the opening-game participants will be available tonight. As expected, United team captain Jaime Moreno won't play because of a hamstring injury he suffered early in the first match. The club hopes he will be ready for the MLS opener March 29 at Kansas City.

Harbour View is reportedly without two starters, Kemeel Wolfe and Rafeik Thomas, whose visa applications were rejected. The equipment manager and team chef were also prevented from entering the United States. Jamaican officials declined to specify the issues involved.

Regardless of the site and opposing lineup, United players acknowledge that they must enhance their play in order to reach the semifinals of the 46-year-old tournament that crowns the champion of North and Central America and the Caribbean.

"It was a combination of our first real game with good organized defense," said midfielder Devon McTavish, United's goal scorer last week. "These scrimmages we play in preseason were maybe not as intense as that game. The field wasn't great and they came at us with a lot of energy, but at the end of the day, we weren't that good with the ball."

With Moreno sidelined, Soehn is likely to start Franco Niell, a 5-foot-4 Argentine forward acquired this offseason who was mildly influential after entering the first match.

"He's going to create opportunities for himself and he's got to be able to finish those," Soehn said. "The part that we are still adjusting to is making sure he understands his defensive responsibilities and making plays predictable right from the start."

Tonight's match will also be the home debut for Argentine star Marcelo Gallardo, the first player acquired by United under MLS's designated player rule, which allows teams to sign players outside regular salary cap restrictions. Gallardo was crafty with the ball last week and tested Harbour View with his free kicks, but the team's acclimation to a new playmaker remains a work in progress.

Said Soehn, "Every day that we train, every game that we play, there's a better understanding."

The winner of the United-Harbour View series will face defending champion Pachuca of Mexico or Motagua of Honduras in a two-game semifinal series in early April. Those clubs played to a scoreless tie in the first leg and will meet again tomorrow night in Mexico.

United Notes: The club traded a 2009 supplemental draft pick to Houston for Jeremy Barlow, a rookie midfielder from Virginia. Barlow, a Langley High graduate who played in United's youth system, is expected to sign a developmental contract. . . . United cut rookie midfielder Tony Schmitz and veteran forward Jamil Walker, who was attempting to earn a roster spot after rupturing an Achilles' tendon last year.

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