By Jeff Nelson
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 6, 2008
When the San Jose Earthquakes visited RFK Stadium on June 22, D.C. United Coach Tom Soehn watched his team's uneven performance and concluded, "As a whole, we didn't show up."
United still won that game, 3-1.
When the teams meet again tonight in Santa Clara, Calif., United won't have it so easy. Not after what has happened over the past six weeks.
The expansion Earthquakes, who finished the season's first half 3-9-5, are playing their best soccer with a 3-0-2 stretch since the all-star break.
Their recent improvement hasn't gone unnoticed in the United locker room, where a few players heard the name San Jose earlier this week and immediately responded, "They're on a roll."
Joe Vide, acquired by United off waivers after the Earthquakes released him in mid-July, said he has seen the biggest change in San Jose's attack.
"When I was there, we didn't give up that many goals, we just had trouble putting the ball in the net," Vide said. "Obviously with how [Coach] Frank [Yallop] plays, they like to pass the ball around, and things are starting to click a little bit."
As San Jose has improved, United has dealt with a seemingly never-ending rash of injuries, which continued in their most recent game, Wednesday's 2-1 win over the Charleston Battery in the U.S. Open Cup final.
Reigning Major League Soccer most valuable player Luciano Emilio aggravated his groin strain as he scored United's first goal and will not play tonight.
Vide also had to leave early with a hamstring strain. Immediately after the game, he said the team would have to "tie me down" to keep him from playing against his former employer. But United has decided to rest him tonight.
One player who looked to be getting healthy -- Fred -- apparently is not.
As a substitute Wednesday, the Brazilian midfielder provided his usual creative spark to the United attack and eventually scored the game-winning goal. But it was determined late Thursday that the hamstring strain he suffered two weeks ago is bad enough to sideline him tonight.
United has eight injured players who are unavailable for action. Worse, defender Bryan Namoff must sit out for yellow card accumulation, and forward Jaime Moreno left after Wednesday's game to join the Bolivian national team for a World Cup qualifier against Ecuador.
"It's tough," Santino Quaranta said. "It will give somebody an opportunity to step in and do something to make the team win, but [not having those players] is going to be difficult."
For Soehn, there is nothing left to do but patch together his remaining pieces and hope they can outplay a hot opponent.
San Jose "has changed dramatically," Soehn said. "We're going to have to assess what's left of ours. I think the thing we're looking for most is consistency."
Even though United has posted a 3-2-1 record in MLS play since the all-star break, many of its recent games have been judged by the players and coaches as good, but not great.
With a little less than two months left in the regular season, United is currently tied with New York for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, and games such as tonight's are still the top priority, even with Champions League play looming on the schedule.
"Right now the most important thing for us is winning MLS Cup," Soehn said. "Obviously the Champions League is an important goal we set for ourselves, but we're going to be cautious to make sure we're set up to do both in the right way. But I'll say this now: The MLS Cup is a priority for me."