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United Ponders Season Gone Awry

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

On Monday morning, about 12 hours after being eliminated from MLS playoff contention, D.C. United's players and coaches congregated in Concourse B in the Columbus, Ohio, airport for their hour-long flight home.

But like almost everything else this distressing year, the final road trip during a 47-game, eight-month schedule was flawed. Delays and cancellations kept them in the terminal for about six hours, and when a flight was available, they had to connect through New York.

"We got back to D.C. in the time it would take to fly to Argentina," Coach Tom Soehn huffed yesterday.

It was a fitting end to the league agenda for a club that, after undergoing major renovations, never got off the ground. After boasting MLS's best record the previous two seasons, United (11-15-4) missed the playoffs for the first time in six years, faltered in three of four nonleague competitions, and will now enter another uncertain winter.

"It's a bad year," team captain Jaime Moreno said. "We should have done better. There is no way, with the kind of players we have, we should be in this position right now."

Though United does have one game remaining, tonight against Marathon of Honduras in the CONCACAF Champions League at RFK Stadium, the club already has begun reflecting on what went so terribly wrong and whether another roster overhaul, as well as a coaching change, is necessary.

"We want to decompress the next couple weeks, talk about it and make all those decisions," General Manager Dave Kasper said.

It does not appear, however, that United will alter the roster as drastically as last offseason, when six prominent newcomers were acquired. None of them was in the starting lineup Sunday against Columbus, symbolic of the team's turbulent year.

Goalkeeper José Carvallo and forward Franco Niell were waived in the summer, defenders Gonzalo Martínez and Gonzalo Peralta were on the bench, midfielder Marcelo Gallardo continued his recovery from the latest in a series of injuries and goalie Zach Wells, the starter the first four months after being acquired in a trade for defender Bobby Boswell, was backing up newcomer Louis Crayton.

"There were some disappointments," Kasper said. "They were all established players, but that doesn't always guarantee they are going to adapt and be successful."

Gallardo, an Argentine playmaker whose $1.9 million contract is the largest in club history, played only half the season and to mixed reviews. But with a guaranteed contract in 2009, he is likely to return. The only realistic scenario for his departure is if a Latin American club expresses interest, and both he and United decide it's best to part ways.

Martínez and Peralta earned nearly $450,000 combined, and while Peralta showed promise before suffering two long-term injuries, Martínez regressed.

Sub-par individual performances were only part of the problem as the extreme makeover took months to take hold.

"Although we went through some hard times adjusting, we bounced back pretty well," Soehn said of an eight-game unbeaten streak in all competitions between late May and early July. "And then injuries took their toll. We had to adapt again."

Gallardo played 166 minutes the second half of the regular season and made only one appearance the last 13 nonleague matches. Moreno, forward Luciano Emilio, Peralta and Fred were also sidelined for periods. Midfielder Clyde Simms was the only D.C. player to appear in every MLS game.

Kasper said the club will "take a hard look at our approach to fitness training and maintaining and preventing injuries."

Moreno, who plans to return for a 14th MLS season after impending knee and abdominal operations, does not advocate another set of radical roster moves.

"If you change a bunch of guys again, it's going to be a new team again," he said. "A coach [had to perform] miracles to think, bringing in these new guys, we were going to win championships."

Gallardo and Moreno aren't the only players with guaranteed contracts, which are generally rare in MLS. Emilio and midfielder Ben Olsen are also locked in, though Olsen's left ankle injury, which limited him to one appearance, might force him to retire.

Emilio, the 2007 league MVP, led the team with 11 goals, but did not score in his final 10 league appearances. He and Gallardo have designated player contracts, the rule inspired by Los Angeles superstar David Beckham that allows teams to retain players outside normal salary cap guidelines. Emilio is earning nearly $760,000.

The club plans to enter negotiations with veteran starters Simms and defender Bryan Namoff, whose deals expire Dec. 31, and will decide in the coming weeks whether to exercise contract options on players such as Wells and midfielder Ivan Guerrero.

United also plans to formally acquire defender Greg Janicki and forward-midfielder Thabiso Khumalo, who have been on loan from third-division Pittsburgh. Janicki was particularly impressive in his few appearances.

Several other late acquisitions are likely to return as well, including Crayton, whose contract runs until next summer. The club has two picks in each of the first two rounds of the draft in January, but might lose someone in the Nov. 26 expansion draft, which will supply 10 players to the expansion Seattle Sounders.

Whether Soehn is around to mold the roster remains unclear. Like every United coach before him, he is on a year-to-year contract and, after faltering in the first round of the 2007 playoffs and missing this postseason, "nobody is safe," he said.

Kasper said Soehn's future will be determined in meetings with ownership in the coming weeks. However, the general manager expressed his support, saying, "I feel strongly that Tommy deserves to remain as head coach."

The club's managing partners, Victor MacFarlane and Will Chang, are actively involved with the team and "understand it was a very challenging year, injury-wise and with our schedule," Kasper said. "There is certainly a concern on their part as to what happened this year."

Whoever is coaching next year, nonleague matches will not cause as much strain. By winning the U.S. Open Cup, United qualified for the 2009-10 Champions League, the regional championship pitting MLS teams against the best in Central America and the Caribbean. But D.C. will not be distracted by any spring competitions and won't compete in SuperLiga, a summer tournament with MLS and Mexican teams.

Columbus, which had the best record in the league, played 15 fewer competitive matches than United this year.

"We had a lot of excuses, but at the end of the day, I don't think any of them are that good," defender Devon McTavish said. "There is not really one thing that we can point to and say we need to fix. When you lose as many games as we did, obviously something is wrong."

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