Gamble in Goal Has Yet to Pay Off

Zach Wells, unable to stop this goal against Toronto FC, was a backup in Houston before United brought him in this offseason to replace Troy Perkins. United has given up 22 goals in 11 MLS matches, just 12 fewer than in 30 last season.
Zach Wells, unable to stop this goal against Toronto FC, was a backup in Houston before United brought him in this offseason to replace Troy Perkins. United has given up 22 goals in 11 MLS matches, just 12 fewer than in 30 last season. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 4, 2008

In December, when D.C. United decided to sell its starting goalkeeper to a Norwegian club, a plan was put into place to soften the blow.

Before finalizing the deal that sent Troy Perkins to Valerenga, United arranged a trade for Zach Wells, an emerging talent stuck as a backup in Houston, and a deal to acquire José Carvallo, a promising keeper from Peru. Together, club officials believed, the newcomers would create competition for playing time -- an element that had been sorely missing last year -- and provide United with depth and security at perhaps the most critical position.

But more than two months into the MLS season, goalkeeping has been among the myriad problems that has left a league favorite with a 3-7-1 record, worst in the Eastern Conference, and in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in six years.

Wells, who has started all but one of the club's 15 league and international matches, acknowledged yesterday that he has been "not very good so far." The statistics support his assessment: His only shutout came in March against Jamaica's Harbour View in a Champions' Cup quarterfinal game, and his goals against average in MLS matches is 1.80, 14th among 15 goalies who have played at least 300 minutes.

"Every week you work to improve and it's frustrating when it doesn't turn for you right away," Wells said. "I am starting to see some improvement. It's encouraging and I want to keep it going."

With Wells's play lacking, Carvallo seemed set to start at least a few matches. But other than one early appearance, which gave Wells a break during a busy stretch on the schedule, Carvallo's performances in practice have been unconvincing.

Wells is almost certain to start again tonight at RFK Stadium against his former club, the two-time defending champion Dynamo.

Wells, 27, arrived in Washington with just 22 league starts in four seasons, 17 coming in 2005 with New York. But United was enamored with his potential and saw him as a natural replacement for Perkins, whose sale drew a $750,000 transfer fee, two-thirds of which went to United and was applied toward signing other foreign players in the offseason.

Although United's team defending has been an ongoing concern, Wells was at fault on several goals because of poor positioning, slow reactions and communication issues.

United Coach Tom Soehn said Wells showed progress in last Thursday's 2-2 tie at New England, but needs him to "take on more of a leadership role back there and demand that things are cleaned up in front of him so that he can focus on his job. It hasn't been one of his traits. I've asked him to do it and now I am demanding him to do it."

Although Wells's ability to speak Spanish has helped alleviate a potential language barrier with South American backs Gonzalo Martínez and Gonzalo Peralta, the general understanding between the goalie and all the defenders has been a work in progress.

"Eleven games in now, we are still improving and working on it," Wells said. "No team in the league is a finished product, so like everyone else, we are tinkering and trying to finish the details."

Said right back Bryan Namoff: "We are still transitioning defensively, not just with Zach, but the entire back line. We are continuously looking at what we have done wrong and how to learn from our mistakes."

Wells is hardly alone in accepting blame for goals. On several occasions, defenders have failed to mark opponents in the penalty area and midfielders have not closed down space or pressured attacking players. Wells, though, has not come up with many big saves. The result has been 22 goals conceded in 11 league matches, just 12 fewer than United allowed in 30 games last season.

While Wells has labored, Carvallo's opportunities have been limited in part by an inability to learn defensive commands in English. Soehn did take a look at him in the third game of the MLS schedule, but it was under trying circumstances: on Real Salt Lake's artificial turf, the worst surface in the league, with several United regulars being rested and a three-man back line in front of him. RSL won, 4-0.

Carvallo, 22, has not earned any assignments since.

"Just because someone thinks one guy is doing poorly, you don't throw the next guy in," assistant coach Mark Simpson, who oversees the goalies, said in addressing speculation that a lineup change could help solve United's problems. "José has got to be better and we have to have confidence in putting him in there."

United Notes: Bobby Boswell, a fan favorite who made 80 league appearances for United between 2005 and '07 and was MLS's 2006 defender of the year, will make his first appearance at RFK tonight since being traded to Houston in the Wells deal. . . . The Dynamo, 3-1-1 since an 0-2-4 start, has not played at RFK since winning MLS Cup there in November.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company