Back in Washington, United's Gómez Not Yet 'at His Best'

Christian Gómez, right, who returned to United in February, scored the first goal of the season but has yet to regain the form he showed in his first stint.
Christian Gómez, right, who returned to United in February, scored the first goal of the season but has yet to regain the form he showed in his first stint. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

D.C. United's reacquisition of Christian Gómez in February stirred memories of the Argentine playmaker's initial spell in Washington, when he won a most valuable player award and guided the club to an MLS Cup title and two Supporters' Shields as the league's best team in the regular season.

But Gómez's return after one sour year with the Colorado Rapids has been tempered by fitness issues and the gradual process of readjusting to old teammates and bonding with new ones.

Gómez scored the club's first goal of the season, a penalty kick against the Los Angeles Galaxy, and through four matches has received good reviews -- good, but not great. After playing almost all of the first two games, he was removed early in the second half of a 1-0 victory over the Houston Dynamo on April 4 and came out with 14 minutes left and the score tied Saturday in an eventual 2-1 loss to Real Salt Lake.

"He's getting there, but he's not 100 percent yet," United Coach Tom Soehn said yesterday. "When Christian is at his best, you are going to see him pull away from guys more. We haven't seen enough of that yet. He knows it and we are working to get him there."

Gómez, 34, acknowledged his physical limitations, a situation created in part by his lack of playing time late last season when the Rapids made a coaching change and subsequently altered their approach. Through an interpreter, however, he said that "each match I feel a little better. I am working to get there."

United's attacking challenges have been compounded by veteran forward Jaime Moreno's limited availability because of his recovery from two offseason surgeries and then a red card suspension. Gómez and Moreno are United's most capable players maintaining ball possession and distributing passes to teammates in dangerous positions.

While Gómez has not reached his peak pace and endurance, United (1-1-2) has failed to fully integrate him into the attack.

Soehn said some players have been reluctant to pass to Gómez when he is closely marked and instead opt to send long balls directly to the forwards, undermining United's possession-oriented tactics. The club has scored just once in each of the past three matches, all by Brazilian striker Luciano Emilio.

"Some of our young guys have to learn that, even with someone on Christian's back, you are comfortable enough to play it to him," Soehn said. "He can handle it. It's still a learning process of him finding good spots, us finding him, and us being a better soccer team."

Gómez noted improvement during the Real Salt Lake game, when United strung together several passes and took the lead on Emilio's header late in the first half. As the playmaker, though, Gómez would like the opportunity to make more plays.

"It's definitely frustrating," he said. "You run and run and run, and you don't get the ball. I'm not worried because we have had many players coming and going [with injuries] and we have these young players who are very good. They are learning our style of play -- getting a lot of touches on the ball and keeping it low. Once we settle down, you will see the same D.C. United as before."

United's veterans don't seem concerned about Gómez's slow start.

"I don't think he is playing his best soccer right now," midfielder Ben Olsen said. "That can be [because] the way we are playing isn't conducive to his strengths. As we become a better team and start to keep the ball better and jell offensively, I think you will see him be the player he was."

United Notes: The club is moving closer to finalizing an Aug. 8 friendly against world power Real Madrid, but instead of playing at RFK Stadium, organizers are hoping to use FedEx Field. United last played in Landover in 2005, a 2-1 loss to English club Chelsea before 31,273.

Real, which would be in the late stages of its preseason, has tentative plans to base itself in the Washington area and travel to play a second MLS team a few days later, sources said. . . .

Defender Greg Janicki (concussion) and goalkeeper Josh Wicks (hip flexor strain) have been upgraded to probable for Friday's match against the New England Revolution (2-0-1).

© 2009 The Washington Post Company