By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 24, 2008
The blame for D.C. United's poorest start since its inaugural season 12 years ago has been widespread. It's been assigned to goalkeeper Zach Wells and the defense for conceding soft goals, to playmaker Marcelo Gallardo and the attack for a shortage of scoring opportunities, to reigning MVP Luciano Emilio for his goal drought and to the front office for its offseason moves.
But from the stands at RFK Stadium to the message boards where fans gather online, much of the criticism for the club's 2-7 record has been leveled at second-year coach Tom Soehn, whose team has already matched last season's loss total despite playing less than one-third of the schedule.
Yesterday, as the club made final preparations for tonight's visit by Toronto FC, several players came to Soehn's defense.
"It's not just Tommy's fault; it's everybody's fault," team captain Jaime Moreno said. "I know he makes the decisions, but at the end of the day, players are the ones who step on the field. That's always going to be the case for coaches because they are the big guys and they make decisions. We told him we support him and we still believe in him."
Club officials say they are confident Soehn will find a solution soon, but if losses continue to mount in a season that began with soaring expectations, speculation about a coaching change will likely gain momentum. Dallas fired Steve Morrow this week after just eight games this season.
United finished with the most points in MLS the previous two seasons and, after a series of pricey foreign acquisitions over the winter, the club was pegged as one of the favorites to win MLS Cup this year. But D.C. has lost four straight, fallen 13 points behind Eastern Conference leader Columbus and is in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in six years.
A 1-0 loss at Toronto on Wednesday extended the club's winless streak on the road in all competitions to 12, dating from last Sept. 1, and dropped its away record in MLS this year to 0-5 with one goal scored.
"There has been a lot of challenges to deal with this season -- integrating new players, short- and long-term injuries and juggling the demands" of international play, General Manager Dave Kasper said. "We have full confidence that this thing is going to get turned around."
When asked about his job security, Soehn said, "Everybody is held accountable -- players, coaches, everybody."
With pressure growing, "I go home with my wife and kids, and that is something that keeps you grounded . . . and keeps you going," Soehn said.
Despite Wednesday's loss, the team's overall performance offered encouragement. United played with more urgency and energy than in recent weeks and had better play for much of the evening, but Devon McTavish's defensive gaffe early in the match and Fred's missed opportunities resulted in another defeat.
"It hasn't been so much Tommy's fault," McTavish said. "It hasn't been tactics or strategy; it's just been showing up and playing the way we know how to play, and I don't think we've done that for the majority of the season."
Gallardo, the centerpiece of United's offseason moves and the highest-paid player in club history, also backed Soehn.
"He is doing a good job," the Argentine midfielder said through an interpreter. "Whenever you go through a rough patch like this, people try to find someone to blame. That's not what we need to do right now. We need to keep working hard to get results."
Added defender Bryan Namoff: "When you are losing this many games, everyone looks to point fingers at somebody and unfortunately he is getting a lot of the blame. Is it fair? I don't know if it is fair. All of the problem areas have been mistakes by the players. It's just been an unfortunate sequence of events that has led to this losing streak."
Though United's confidence has been shaken by the losses -- the team became noticeably unnerved after conceding the tying goal during a 3-1 loss at Chivas USA last weekend -- Soehn seems to have kept the players from turning on him or one another.
At this point, though, what he needs most is a victory.
"The most important thing right now is that [the players] are really close, as a friend, as a teammate," Moreno said. "Tomorrow you are going to see a different team."
United Note: Defender Jeff Curtin, 24, has decided to retire because of recurring groin injuries, a move that opens a slot on the club's developmental roster. Curtin (Georgetown) joined United this spring after two seasons in Chicago and appeared in one reserve division match last month.