First Place in the Eastern Conference Is on the Line for D.C. United

Leading scorer Luciano Emilio will miss tonight's match against Chicago while serving a one-game suspension for receiving a red card June 4.
Leading scorer Luciano Emilio will miss tonight's match against Chicago while serving a one-game suspension for receiving a red card June 4. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 13, 2009

D.C. United's meeting with the Chicago Fire tonight at RFK Stadium affords an opportunity to claim first place in the Eastern Conference, which would be a notable achievement for a club that failed to qualify for the MLS playoffs last year. But the importance of the match is magnified by the fact that United will not host another league game for five weeks and play six of its next seven on the road.

"It's a vital result," United Coach Tom Soehn said yesterday. "We have a lot of games coming up on the road after this one, so we have to make sure we take the points at home."

With a trip to Seattle and Denver next week, a visit to Columbus on July 4, breaks in the schedule for the U.S. Open Cup and an extended inactive period, United will not play again at RFK until July 18 against Colorado. After that game, D.C. will travel to San Jose, Houston and Toronto.

United (4-2-7, 19 points) is unbeaten at home in seven MLS matches and nine overall, but it has settled for four ties, including two that required late comebacks. A victory tonight would allow the club to overtake the Fire (5-2-6, 21 points) for first.

"They're in first place and we're playing for first place -- the guys know that, and they're excited to get back out there after the long break," said goalkeeper Josh Wicks, who is expected to make his fourth consecutive start.

With a nine-day layoff, United has had ample time to recover from injuries and prepare for a Chicago team that is 4-0-3 on the road but has lost two straight since an 11-game unbeaten streak to start the season.

"The guys were able to heal their little knickknacks they get over the course of a season," Soehn said. "They felt fresh, and as the week wore on, our soccer got back to where it needed to be."

United does not have any injury concerns, other than midfielder Ben Olsen, who is close to returning from a hamstring injury that has sidelined him for a month. However, the club will be without leading scorer Luciano Emilio, who will serve a one-game suspension for receiving a red card during a 2-0 victory over New York. His absence is countered by Chicago's loss of top defender Bakary Soumare (red card).

"Knowing we can take first place and start looking back at people," defender Marc Burch said, "we want to put together a complete game."

While the defense, anchored by Wicks and central back Dejan Jakovic, has come together, the attack has failed to capitalize on scoring opportunities and left games in the balance. Despite equaling Chicago for most goals in the league (20), United has scored just three times in the past three matches.

Nonetheless, the players say they have found a rhythm and now need to concentrate on consistency. "There are always going to be gaps in your game, but if we can limit the mistakes and be consistent, we're going to be in good position," Wicks said. "It's going to be difficult on the road, so we have to take care of these games at home."

In the first game of the RFK doubleheader, the Washington Freedom (3-3-3) will attempt to rebound from last weekend's loss at front-running Los Angeles and maintain a hold on second place in Women's Professional Soccer. Four teams, including Chicago, are within two points of Washington.

The Freedom received a boost this week with the acquisition of defender-midfielder Ali Krieger, a Northern Virginia native with U.S. national team experience who was not available at the start of the WPS season because of German club commitments. She is likely to step into the starting lineup. Meantime, starting midfielder Lori Lindsey is questionable after returning from an illness that sidelined her last weekend.

Soccer Notes: Despite sitting out Trinidad and Tobago's World Cup qualifier against Mexico on Wednesday with an undisclosed injury, United defender Avery John said he will be available tonight . . . Between games, six inductees into the Virginia-D.C. Soccer Hall of Fame will be recognized: ex-United defender Jeff Agoos, U.S. women's star Mia Hamm, Red Stars executive Marcia McDermott, former U.S. midfielder Wendy Gebauer, Team America (NASL) coach Alkis Panagoulias and former local coaches Dave Williams and Pat McStay.

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