By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
D.C. United did not have to renovate its roster over the winter.
It could have re-signed 2006 MVP Christian G¿mez, retained goalkeeper Troy Perkins, given defender Bobby Boswell a chance to atone for a lost year, protected midfielder Brian Carroll from the expansion draft and, quite likely, proceeded to finish with the most points in MLS again.
But the league's most decorated club is obsessively ambitious, and when failure to win a major domestic or international trophy last year stretched its drought to three years, the front office decided to take action.
On paper, the arrival of five South Americans, among others, to replace several departing veterans seemed sure to keep United on a winning course and provide much-needed edginess in tournaments and the MLS playoffs.
But as the club prepares for two critical matches this week against Toronto FC, starting tonight at rowdy BMO Field, the early verdict on the roster makeover is decidedly unfavorable. United (2-6 and last in the Eastern Conference) has lost three in a row and five of six to equal the worst start in the club's 13 seasons.
With so many new players, club officials and the coaching staff braced themselves for a rocky transition. But no one expected it to last this deep into the season and cause such a disruption.
"Anywhere in the world it's normal, when you make changes the way we made changes, for things not to go the way you want them to begin with," second-year forward Luciano Emilio, MLS's scoring champion and MVP last year who has just one goal this season, said through an interpreter.
"It's a different team than last year. Last year we had better chemistry because all the players knew each other well. This year, with all the changes, we don't have that same chemistry up to now."
Losing has taken a toll. After a 3-1 setback at Chivas USA on Saturday, a game in which United's late lead dissolved during a disastrous nine-minute stretch, Coach Tom Soehn kept the locker room closed for 30 minutes and admonished his team. The players' body language and postgame comments were indicative of a team on the brink of a complete collapse.
United started poorly last year as well, but this season has a different, and ominous, feel to it. Soehn and the players acknowledge that, if they have any hope of resurrecting the season, they must starting winning immediately.
"We don't have any other choice," team captain Jaime Moreno said. "We do know that we are in a situation no one wants to be in."
Moreno, a 12-year veteran who was re-signed in part to facilitate the influx of the Latin American players, called the chemistry issue "a cheap excuse. It's very simple: We're not playing well, we're not getting results -- that's all that counts right now."
Other than in the 4-1 victories at home against Toronto and Real Salt Lake, there has been a glaring lack of understanding among players.
Individual problems also surfaced: Goalkeeper Zach Wells, acquired from Houston for Boswell to replace Norway-based Perkins, has been an inconsistent shot-stopper, and the backline has suffered numerous breakdowns.
Playmaker Marcelo Gallardo, who replaced G¿mez (now with Colorado), scored two spectacular goals, but the team has appeared awkward in adapting to his nuanced possession style.
First-year forward Franco Niell has been largely ineffective, while Emilio has not received adequate service and lost his finishing touch.
Soehn's problems were compounded by a long-term ankle injury to Ben Olsen, the club's emotional leader, and short-term ailments to Fred, Devon McTavish and others.
Soehn, the target of fans' disgust on online message boards, remains upbeat.
"Losing the other day really ticked [the players] off even more," he said. "I'll say this: As soon as this team gets it, I wouldn't want to play against us, and we're getting really close."
The transition "has been a little tougher than I expected," he continued, "but right now I am seeing it turn and that is a real positive."
United saw positive signs Saturday, but when badly undermanned Chivas USA took advantage of Wells's error and scored the equalizer, D.C.'s confidence and game plan took a noticeable dive and two more goals quickly followed.
"It was a letdown and you could see it," veteran defender Bryan Namoff said of the tying goal. "Almost everybody had a collective sigh and didn't really know where to go from there. Our mentality was, 'We have to win the game!' We took some chances we probably shouldn't have."
So now attention turns to tonight's encounter and this weekend's rematch with rejuvenated Toronto, games that could plunge United deeper into the abyss or rekindle hopes of fulfilling those preseason expectations.
Said midfielder Santino Quaranta, "These games could change our season."
United Notes: While Fred (hamstring) and McTavish (foot) were included on the 18-man game roster and traveled with the team yesterday, defender Gonzalo Peralta plans to join the squad today. Peralta missed Saturday's match to be with his pregnant wife. . . . After missing three games, Fred said he would not be able to play a full match tonight. . . . Soehn declined to say whether Emilio would return to the starting lineup after coming off the bench against Chivas USA.