After Recent Struggles, United Looks to Refocus Its Goals

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 28, 2008

Throughout these troublesome months of compounding injuries, distant travel and staggering losses, D.C. United has taken comfort in the fact that it remained in good standing to qualify for the MLS playoffs. But as the club enters the final stage of a terribly erratic year, the promise of postseason is in peril.

United is jockeying with seven clubs -- half the league -- for essentially two spots, and with three of its final five matches on the road, starting this afternoon against FC Dallas, D.C. is in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the first time in six years.

Such failure would not go over well with the club's new management, which invested heavily in foreign players last winter in an attempt to transform regular season success into an MLS championship. United did win the U.S. Open Cup title this month, but fell short in two international tournaments and is laboring in a third.

"It's very simple: If we don't pull this together, we are not going to make the playoffs," team captain Jaime Moreno warned.

Three clubs in each conference are guaranteed berths, with the final two slots going to the teams next in the points race, regardless of Eastern or Western affiliation. United (10-12-3) seemed safe all summer, but a 1-3-2 stretch has dropped it into the danger zone -- quite a fall for a club that won the Supporters' Shield (most points in the regular season) the previous two years.

United's crisis in league play has prompted Coach Tom Soehn to de-emphasize the team's approach to the CONCACAF Champions League. A case could be made that the inaugural regional tournament, which sends the winner to the 2009 Club World Cup, is more important than the MLS schedule, but after losing the first two games in the group stage, United will need to win at least three of the final four to qualify for the quarterfinals.

"The regular season does take precedence," said Soehn, who might lose his job if United fails to reach the postseason. "We need to make the playoffs, and we are going to put ourselves in the best opportunity to do that."

The players seem to agree with Soehn's position.

"One day you are worried about MLS, and the next day you are totally focused on this CONCACAF," midfielder-forward Santino Quaranta said. "You are switching back and forth. We have to focus on one thing, I think, at this point now. Realistically, are we going to get out of our group in CONCACAF? I don't know. I would say no. The odds are against us. So right now we really try to focus on this playoff run."

United is getting healthier after missing key players for long stretches. Moreno, who sat out the past two games with a knee ailment, is expected to return today and defender Gonzalo Peralta, sidelined much of the past three months with sports hernia and hamstring injuries, seems ready to rejoin the starting lineup after appearing in the second half of a Champions League game at Marathon (Honduras) on Wednesday.

"Adding Jaime back into the mix," Soehn said, "our soccer IQ goes way up."

Midfielder Joe Vide (hamstring) might be available today, and playmaker Marcelo Gallardo (adductor strain) is scheduled to rejoin the team tomorrow after rehabbing in his native Argentina. Meantime, defender Marc Burch is serving a one-game suspension for receiving a red card last weekend at Los Angeles.

The absence of several regulars has forced United to change its style.

"It has helped some young kids grow up, but you do miss the experience and the abilities of the older guys," Soehn said. "They are what makes us play a pretty brand of soccer, so we had to adjust and play a little bit more of a grinding and hustling team, which isn't our forte. Getting everybody back obviously [will help United play] the way we want to play."

The losses, injuries and travel, however, have taken a toll.

"It does affect you, especially when you get bad results," Moreno said. "It's more tiring, it's irritating, but this is the time the team has to be stronger and come together. We know that we have an important stretch."

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