Tough Road Test Looms for United

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

The first 10 games on D.C. United's MLS schedule were not supposed to cause many problems. There were a combined five matches against the two worst teams in the league last year (Toronto FC and Real Salt Lake) and one apiece with two other clubs that failed to make the playoffs (Colorado and Columbus).

But after managing just three victories and landing in last place in the Eastern Conference, United will begin the critical second stage of an uncertain season with three difficult matches over the next 10 days.

It begins on the road tonight against the New England Revolution, the MLS Cup runner-up the past three seasons, continues Wednesday at RFK Stadium against the two-time defending champion Houston Dynamo and concludes June 7 at Chicago, which has conceded just six goals in nine games and appears primed for a championship run.

United's 3-2 comeback victory over visiting Toronto last Saturday "was a relief, but we need to believe in each other and show we can do that on the road now," United Coach Tom Soehn said. "It's one step at a time."

United wobbled before executing that step, breaking down on defense and laboring to maintain a fluid attack until a late surge ended a four-game losing streak and alleviated some of the pressure mounting on the players and, in particular, Soehn.

"It's a good sign, even though we keep making those mistakes," team captain Jaime Moreno said of United overcoming 1-0 and 2-1 deficits. "It disappoints you, but we have to keep digging and keep working. That's the only word we know -- work, work, work. We have to maintain the same level. That is the key."

Tonight, United will face three obstacles: its own recurring problems, a New England team that has won three in a row to move into a three-way tie for first place with Chicago and Columbus, and Gillette Stadium's artificial turf. Though the surface in Foxborough, Mass., more closely resembles grass than those of other MLS facilities, United will have to adjust accordingly in order to implement its ball-possession style of attacking.

"I don't expect that to be an issue," said Soehn, whose team won, 3-0, at Gillette last summer.

In its previous matches on turf this year, however, United was blasted by Real Salt Lake, 4-0, and lost to Toronto, 1-0.

D.C.'s away record in league play is 0-5 with one goal scored, and its winless streak on the road in all competitions is 12, dating from last Sept. 1, when it won at Dallas.

"The surface really hurts us if we are not able to get our momentum and our possession early in the game," defender Bryan Namoff said. "The key to our success is being able to possess the ball, change the point of the attack and try to get the ball to our wings. When we are unable to do so, frustration kicks in, and we start playing a lot more direct and maybe try to force things too much."

While United is confident it will be able to navigate the turf, concerns linger about a defense plagued by sloppy marking and about goalkeeper Zach Wells, who often has been caught out of position and hasn't made many key saves. Soehn declined to discuss his starting lineup, but he could turn to José Carvallo, a Peruvian whose only appearance came almost seven weeks ago at Real Salt Lake.

As for the defensive issues, "It's a concentration thing in making sure that we recognize every play is important [and] whether it's a throw-in or something that looks insignificant, we have to see it out," Soehn said. "That kind of urgency, we haven't had."

United Notes: Defender Gonzalo Peralta did not fly with the team to Boston yesterday to remain with his pregnant wife and is tentatively planning to travel today. . . .

Despite the departure of forward Francis Doe for Liberian national team duty, Argentine forward Franco Niell did not travel with the regulars and, for the third consecutive game, was not included on the initial 18-man active roster. He is scheduled to play in tomorrow morning's reserve division match against the Revolution. . . .

Midfielder-forward Rod Dyachenko, sidelined the past two games with a hip flexor injury, is expected to be available tonight. . . .

Rookie midfielder Ryan Cordeiro, who made his first start May 17 at Chivas USA, has been upgraded to the senior developmental roster, a promotion that provides a slight pay increase. The slot opened last week when defender Jeff Curtin retired because of a persistent groin injury.

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