United Needs to Win -- and Hope

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008

A turbulent regular season has come down to this for D.C. United: Win the final two matches or, in all likelihood, miss the MLS playoffs for the first time in six years and confront another roster renovation this winter.

United has been wallowing for three months, beset with injuries to key players, defensive failures and an incoherent attack. The time to find a remedy has run out.

"Everyone knows where we are and what we need to do," team captain Jaime Moreno said yesterday. "We've said it all. Now you've got to put it on the field and prove it -- it's very simple."

Not so simple. The remaining matches are against longtime nemesis New England (12-9-7, 43 points) tonight at RFK Stadium and Oct. 26 at Columbus, which already has clinched the Supporters' Shield with the best record in the league (16-6-6, 54 points).

Even a pair of victories might not be enough. United (10-14-4, 34 points) trails three teams by one or two points for the final two playoff berths, is level with Colorado and just two points ahead of Los Angeles and Toronto. The tiebreaking procedure is not in its favor either: After head-to-head comparisons, the next criterion is overall goal differential. (United is tied for last at minus-8.)

Coach Tom Soehn was encouraged by the club's determination the past week, earning a 2-2 tie while using mostly reserves in a Champions League game at Saprissa of Costa Rica and holding on for a 0-0 draw despite being severely undermanned at West-leading Houston on Sunday. But the reality is that United has a seven-game winless streak in league play (0-4-3), no goals in the past three games, and a 1-7-4 mark in all competitions since Aug. 30.

"We have done a lot of hard work in these last couple games on the road, and it's been our young guys who have energized us," Soehn said. "It was good for some of our older guys to see that the work has carried over."

Injuries and suspensions, however, continue to disrupt Soehn's preparations.

Leading scorer Luciano Emilio has not played in 2 1/2 weeks because of a strained hamstring but might return tonight. Moreno, the club's most influential player this year, continues to have trouble with a knee injury that will require arthroscopic surgery in the offseason. He said he will not start tonight, but is available if needed.

Defender Bryan Namoff is serving a one-game suspension for receiving a red card Sunday, the third time in four league games a United player has been ejected.

On a brighter note, Brazilian midfielder Fred might be available soon after the initial prognosis on his strained hamstring ruled him out for the final league games.

United is looking to take advantage of a New England team that is 0-2-2 in the past four games, 1-3-4 since beating D.C. on Aug. 20, and without midfielder Steve Ralston, MLS's career leader in assists and games played, who broke his leg Saturday.

"This is the biggest game of the year for us," United midfielder Santino Quaranta said. "Energy-wise, we will be good. We just have to stay composed."

In an Oct. 4 loss to Chivas USA, "once the first goal was scored, a lot of guys' heads went down and the life got sucked out of us," he said. "Tomorrow, even if things don't go well early, we have to stay together."

United Notes: In memory of longtime Spanish radio announcer Danilo Noel Diron, who died Friday at age 63, the players will wear black armbands, and a moment of silence will be observed before kickoff. . . .

Jeff Agoos, a star defender for United the first five years of MLS, will be honored at halftime for his induction into the club's Hall of Tradition. . . .

Goalkeeper Louis Crayton said he has received more than 150 e-mails from Dynamo supporters and a letter from Houston management apologizing for the racially insensitive comments directed at him by a fan after Sunday's game. The fan also has apologized, he said.

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