Emilio's Scoring Gives United a Lift

Striker Luciano Emilio, left, who led United in goals the past two years, has put last year's scoring drought of 13 league games behind him.
Striker Luciano Emilio, left, who led United in goals the past two years, has put last year's scoring drought of 13 league games behind him. (By Michael Brandy -- Associated Press)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 17, 2009

Brazilian striker Luciano Emilio has produced so many goals in so little time since arriving in Washington two years ago, his current three-game scoring streak has barely caused a ripple in MLS.

But when you take into account his goal drought last season, a stretch of 13 league matches during which D.C. United's playoff hopes faded and eventually fizzled, Emilio's prosperous start has lifted expectations for both himself and the club.

"He definitely seems hungry for it this year," said teammate and compatriot Fred, a midfielder. "Strikers need the ball and we need to get it to him. The more he scores, the better for us."

After scoring against Chicago, Houston and Real Salt Lake, Emilio will attempt to continue his run tonight when United (1-1-2) faces the New England Revolution (2-0-1) at RFK Stadium.

Emilio led the team in goals the past two years, scoring 20 in league play en route to the 2007 most valuable player award and adding 11 in 2008. However, all but two last year came in a six-game span in May and June, and after scoring against Kansas City in early August, he didn't convert again in the regular season.

Emilio, 30, also has contributed 11 career goals in nonleague competition, including a pair in last year's U.S. Open Cup semifinals against New England and one in the tournament final against second-division Charleston (S.C.). In all, he has 45 goals in 84 appearances, one of the finest scoring rates in league history.

But failure in the second half of league play last year weighed heavily on Emilio and prompted a winter workout regimen that boosted his strength and endurance. Before training camp, Emilio joined friends in Osasco, Brazil, just outside of Sao Paulo, for an intensive conditioning program -- the first time he had embraced such an offseason plan.

"Last season, whenever someone would pressure me or tackle me, I would either fall down or just be out of the play," he said through an interpreter. "This season, whenever someone tries to tackle me, I can still maintain possession and stay in the play."

United Coach Tom Soehn noticed a difference from the moment Emilio rejoined the team in late January.

"His starting points were great coming in this year," he said. "He did a good job in the offseason and it translated into better play at the beginning of the year."

Much is expected from Emilio because of his past scoring exploits and his salary: nearly $760,000, which is the highest on the team, the second biggest in club history and seventh highest in the league this year. Following Argentine playmaker Marcelo Gallardo's departure over the winter, Emilio is United's only "designated player" -- the classification that allows teams to sign marquee talent, such as David Beckham in Los Angeles, outside normal salary cap guidelines.

Emilio doesn't feel additional pressure to prove his worth after last year's slump, saying: "I have already proven myself in past seasons. I just have to work hard to keep up the same level of play, but if I still haven't [already] proven myself as a goal scorer, I am never going to do it."

With the lineup in flux because of new players and injuries, United has yet to find a consistent attacking rhythm. Service to Emilio inside and around the penalty area has been spotty but improving -- a step, the club hopes, toward maintaining his rejuvenated scoring.

"It is going to come gradually," he said of his scoring opportunities. "It is still not the best, but we are working toward getting it better."

United Note: The past two NCAA champions, Maryland and Wake Forest, will meet in an exhibition preceding the MLS game. Kickoff is at 4 p.m. A ticket to United's match gains entrance to the college game.

The Terrapins, who defeated North Carolina for the national championship in December, will be honored at halftime of the United game.

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