United Turns to Domestic Challenges

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 12, 2008

SALT LAKE CITY, April 11 -- D.C. United rolled into town two full days ahead of Saturday's MLS match against Real Salt Lake, an unusually early trip for a game not being staged on the West Coast.

Coach Tom Soehn cited the hop over two time zones, the altitude adjustment and, most significantly, the need to spend a full training session on Rice-Eccles Stadium's unforgiving artificial turf.

But the premature arrival, scheduled weeks in advance, also brought an unintended benefit: the opportunity to leave behind Wednesday's emotionally gutting elimination from the Champions' Cup at RFK Stadium. Soehn called off practice the morning after the 2-1 victory over Pachuca of Mexico -- a result that left United a goal short in the two-game, total-goals semifinal series -- and joined his players at the airport that afternoon for the flight to Utah.

They settled into their downtown hotel, worked out Friday and then began strategizing for the first of two matches against Real Salt Lake this month.

Despite the quick exit from Washington, "it is going to be difficult" to play so soon after the Pachuca match, defender Bryan Namoff said. "We put a lot of heart and passion into it. We've got to take the same type of intensity into this game."

With its international ambitions on hold until the SuperLiga tournament this summer, United can now turn its full attention to the league schedule after dividing time between four Champions' Cup matches and two MLS games the past month.

Soehn believes his new-look club is prepared to put aside the tournament disappointment, saying, "the attitude with this year's group is much better than last year. Everyone felt we did a pretty good job on Wednesday and we took some satisfaction from the score. They're all looking forward to the next one."

United (1-1) blitzed Toronto, 4-1, last Saturday in its MLS home opener, and although Real Salt Lake is off to a 0-1-1 start and has been picked to finish near the bottom of the Western Conference for the fourth consecutive year, this meeting promises to pose significant issues for the visitors.

The first concern is the playing surface, which is not conducive to United's ball-possession style. Without any resistance provided by real grass, short passes reach their destination quicker than expected and long balls typically skip out of play.

It's troublesome enough for United's veterans; it could be jolting for the club's collection of newcomers from South America, who have rarely, if ever, had to play a meaningful game on artificial turf. As a playmaker known to spray angled passes all over the field, Argentina's Marcelo Gallardo will face the biggest test. But new central defenders Gonzalo Peralta and Gonzalo Martínez, as well as second-year attackers Fred and Luciano Emilio, will also need to adapt.

For that reason, Soehn planned the early arrival in Salt Lake City.

"The ball is always bouncing and the turf is taxing on the body," Namoff said. "Slide tackling can be painful. At the end of the game, you've got cuts all over your legs."

The surface has been unkind, and so have the results. United's previous two trips here resulted in losses that ended lengthy streaks. In 2006, seeking to extend its unbeaten run to 15 games, United held a late lead when Real was awarded two penalty kicks. Jeff Cunningham converted in the 90th minute and again during added time to provide a 2-1 upset. Last summer, with United carrying a seven-game unbeaten streak and Real staggering with an 0-5-6 overall record, Robbie Finley celebrated his Salt Lake debut with a pair of goals in a 2-1 victory.

United did win at Rice-Eccles in 2005 and has a 2-0-1 record against Real at RFK, but the combination of a problematic field and lingering memories from Wednesday is cause for concern.

"We have to move on," Soehn said, "and we have to move on in a hurry."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company