Back at RFK, United Is Hardly At Home in Loss

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

Given the length of the MLS season and D.C. United's propensity for slow starts, it is probably much too early to declare a crisis. But in the past five days, there have been signs of trouble in both the attack and defense.

Last night's 2-1 loss to the Columbus Crew before 13,329 at RFK Stadium left a weary United side with a 1-3 record. Luciano Emilio, the league's most valuable player last season, offered another poor performance and the club's defense slipped up late in the first half to provide the Crew with a lead that was barely challenged in the second half.

"This league is pretty forgiving in terms of slow starts and slow middles and everything else," goalkeeper Zach Wells said. "All that matters is how you finish. We've got a lot of soccer ahead of us and each game we learn something about ourselves and we learn how to tinker with the team."

United is actually ahead of last year's pace, when it started 0-3-1 before accumulating the most points in the regular season. That, however, does not excuse the lack of cohesion and faulty finishing by a club favored to finish atop the Eastern Conference again.

Alejandro Moreno's sweeping shot from close range pushed Columbus (3-1) ahead in the 32nd minute. And later in the first half, after Bryan Namoff's deflected shot drew United even, the Crew needed just one minute to retake the lead.

"We've been through a tough stretch," United Coach Tom Soehn said. "I feel like it's deja vu from last year. We've got a long week coming up and we are going to make sure we are where we need to be, because we are not there yet."

Coming off the disappointment of the semifinal elimination in the Champions' Cup and then a 4-0 loss at Real Salt Lake, United was happy to be home, where it had scored 11 goals in three league and international matches. But a sixth game in 20 days took its toll as United lacked energy and pace in the second half.

The result overshadowed an intriguing matchup between two Argentine legends, Columbus's Guillermo Barros Schelotto and United's Marcelo Gallardo. Several spectators wore Boca Juniors' blue and yellow in honor of Schelotto, while others took the red and white tint of the Buenos Aires club's bitter rival, River Plate (Gallardo's former team). Also on display were a few Argentine national team jerseys, which both players wore for many years, including multiple World Cups.

Schelotto's brilliance with the ball in tight space and passing vision were on display throughout the evening, while Gallardo dazzled with his precise long balls and subtle touches.

Emilio, the MLS scoring champion a year ago, continued to have a hard time in front of the net. In the 14th minute, he played the ball wide to Fred, who crossed perfectly to Emilio for a short header directly at goalkeeper Will Hesmer. It was eerily similar to his missed header against Mexican club Pachuca in the decisive second leg of the Champions' Cup eight days ago at RFK.

Columbus seized the lead when Schelotto led Frankie Hejduk into the penalty area. Hejduk crossed into the six-yard box, where a sliding Moreno got inside Namoff and pushed the ball into the net.

The equalizer came in the 42nd minute. Emilio found Namoff alone on the right side for a low shot that struck the foot of the retreating Adam Moffat and sailed past Hesmer. It was Namoff's second career regular season goal in eight years.

The tie did not last long. Moffat made a wondrous run on the right side and delivered the ball toward Moreno on the edge of the goal line. Before it reached Moreno, United defender Gonzalo Peralta nodded it into the net for an own goal.

Despite the fact that Peralta was the last one to make contact, Moffat's well-placed ball that skimmed off Wells's hand was probably going to find the target one way or another.

"It's a tough ball to deal with -- it's a yard out and it's coming straight down on top of you," Wells said of Peralta's predicament.

Through an interpreter, Gallardo said, "It was an emotional hit for us going into the locker room."

Soehn made three changes at various points after the break, adding forwards Franco Niell and Santino Quaranta, and midfielder Rod Dyachenko, but nothing worked.

In the 66th minute, Gallardo lifted a lovely ball toward the far post that Fred shanked. Emilio flicked Fred's pass wide of the far post as United desperately pressed for an equalizer that did not come.

Asked if he considered removing Emilio, Soehn said: "We injected as many offensive-minded guys as we could when you are chasing a goal. That's what you need to do. It's unfortunate. He got himself in good spots again, but he didn't finish."

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