In Need of a Pick-Me-Up, United Suffers a Letdown

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 29, 2008

FRISCO, Tex., Sept. 28 -- As the final minutes ticked away on another piercing loss Sunday, towels hung over the heads of two D.C. United players slumped on the bench. Leading scorer Luciano Emilio was having his injured hamstring examined and team captain Jaime Moreno was in the locker room after his first regular season ejection in three years. Coach Tom Soehn was hunched over at the end of the bench, gazing at the final remnants of a heartless performance that further endangered his club's playoff hopes.

With four games left, there are few indications United is capable of a late revival.

The 3-0 loss to FC Dallas (8-9-9) before an announced 12,138 at Pizza Hut Park was essentially decided after just nine minutes, when the latest in a series of defensive letdowns resulted in a baffling goal and helped stretch United's winless streak to five.

"Obviously everybody knows the importance of this game," Coach Tom Soehn said. "We talked all week and said the right things, but that doesn't mean much when you don't execute. We came out flat. I don't think anyone worked."

If the regular season were over, United (10-13-3) would not be in the playoffs, a spectacular fall by a team that had MLS's best record the previous two years and believed it had dramatically improved its roster last winter. Though United is only a point behind Real Salt Lake and two behind New York for the final two postseason berths, the club seems incapable of winning anymore.

"Sometimes we forget how to play soccer," said Moreno, who will serve a red card suspension in this Saturday's game against Chivas USA.

In the first half, United offered no inspiration, invention or cohesion. Andre Rocha scored the first goal on a 35-yard free kick that bounced untouched into the right corner. Goalkeeper Louis Crayton was late to react, but the problem began with the defenders, who dropped too deep on Rocha's service and "created a lot of confusion for Louis," central back Devon McTavish said. We didn't give him enough space to come out and get the ball."

Added Crayton: "I expected my defenders to react. Unfortunately, we were all caught off balance."

Crayton made amends of sorts, swatting away Kenny Cooper's header with a spectacular reflex save, but United's attack remained ineffective. The return of Moreno from a two-game absence improved possession, but his distribution was rusty and Santino Quaranta's orchestration in central midfield was off.

Soehn couldn't wait until halftime to shake up the lineup, and with a single substitution in the 41st minute, he changed his team's profile. Quaranta was pulled, Gonzalo Martínez (who had been benched) entered at left back, Iván Guerrero moved into his natural position in midfield, McTavish joined the defensive midfield, Thabiso Khumalo pushed to forward and Moreno dropped into the playmaking role.

It was a move of necessity, but given United's late-season standing, also of desperation.

Though he was still recovering from a badly bruised shin and ankle, Quaranta was surprised by his removal, saying: "I was a little timid, but wasn't like I needed to come off. Who likes to come off the game in the first half? They told me it was tactical."

Said Soehn, "That's what the game dictated because we weren't doing a good enough with our shape."

The second half brought improvement and three mild threats before Khumalo set up Emilio for a run into the box and a low shot that goalie Dario Sala blocked. But seconds after Emilio left with his injury, Dallas seized on another United breakdown. Jeff Cunningham beat Martínez with a central run and redirected Marcelo Saragosa's left-side cross past the advancing Crayton for his fifth goal in seven games since being acquired from Toronto.

United stirred a bit, but Moreno's red card for elbowing Rocha in the face extinguished the club's already fleeting hopes and Cooper added to the misery in added time with a waltz through the D.C. defense and a sharp finish for his 15th goal.

"I have got to do a better job cooling myself down a little bit," Moreno said of the ejection, just his fourth in 13 MLS regular seasons.

United will play again Wednesday in the Champions League, a tournament that is fast becoming a lost cause for the club. Just like the regular season.

"It's hard to stay positive when you keep losing like this," Quaranta said. "It's not fun. We're trying to figure it out, but we don't know what it is. We are not far out of it, I guess, but what do you do? You just keep going. It's been such a crazy year."

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