D.C. United Prepares to Start the MLS Season at the Los Angeles Galaxy
Sunday, March 22, 2009
D.C. United planned to keep a low profile over the winter. Radical change wasn't necessary, the club concluded. Retain the coach. Preserve the core of the roster. Keep the faith in the pricey, unproductive playmaker. What United needed to do, team officials said, was tinker just enough to remedy the problems that caused it to miss the MLS playoffs for the first time in six years.
But United's blueprint for a 2009 revival underwent revisions, spurred by forces both in and out of its control.
The result is a squad full of contradictions.
Former league MVPs Luciano Emilio and Christian Gómez are coming off sub-par seasons and are supported by an inexperienced central defense. MLS career scoring leader Jaime Moreno has recovered from two offseason surgeries to be available for a 14th MLS season and will have to bond with unproven players. And seasoned starting goalkeeper Louis Crayton finds himself backed up by two novices.
United commences its 14th season today at Los Angeles with a confounding outlook: Will the club return to the form that produced the league's best regular season record in 2006 and '07? Or is it headed for another troubling year that would surely prompt shakeups to the roster, coaching staff and front office?
"You learn a lot through the course of a season, the down streaks and up streaks, what kind of team you have," said Coach Tom Soehn, who has a 38-38-16 record in all competitions in two years. "Right now everything is good, but we haven't played a meaningful game yet. That's the time you see a team come together or self-destruct, and right now the guys have been fantastic."
United attributed last season's problems to an exhausting schedule that included four nonleague tournaments, long-term injuries to key personnel and an absence of chemistry caused by the acquisition of several new players. This year's prospects have been enhanced by a clearer calendar, but hamstring injuries have already sidelined starting midfielders Santino Quaranta and Fred for one to three games.
And the idea of keeping the roster largely intact had to be altered. Although nine regulars have returned, United needed to find a central midfielder after Marcelo Gallardo, who earned a club-record $1.9 million last year but was sidelined half the season with injuries, decided to return to Argentina.
The replacement is a familiar face: Gómez, the 2006 MVP who, because of a contract impasse, was dealt to Colorado early last year before returning this winter in a trade that sent midfielder Ivan Guerrero to the Rapids. Gómez, 34, has not played regularly since last summer when Colorado made a coaching change.
However, his familiarity with United's veterans and conducive playing style appear to be a good fit.
"It feels like Christian never left," said Moreno, the team captain. "When you see his face, he is happy. We all know Christian and what he is capable of doing."
In 2007, Gómez had a strong bond with Emilio, who produced 20 goals in 29 regular season games and won the MVP award. Last year, in part because of Gallardo's nuanced style and unreliable availability, the Brazilian striker failed to score in the last 13 league matches and finished with 11 goals.