Halfway Through MLS Season, D.C. United Is Happy, but Not Satisfied

By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 20, 2009; 12:04 AM

DENVER, June 19 -- D.C. United's match in Seattle on Wednesday was punctuated by defensive flaws, a goalkeeper's valor and an injury to a starter, by rookie influences, a rousing comeback and a tie -- in essence, the fitting conclusion to the first half of the MLS season.

United (5-2-8) enters the second stage of the calendar here Saturday night in first place, two points ahead of Chicago in the snugly packed Eastern Conference. It has lost just two of 15 league games (17 in all competitions), is unbeaten at home and leads the league in scoring.

And after failing to make the playoffs last year and remaking the roster for the second straight winter, United is generally happy with its standing. However, as demonstrated in the 3-3 draw with the expansion Sounders this week, the club remains an unfinished product -- albeit an entertaining one.

"We're certainly pleased with the chemistry and makeup of this club," General Manager Dave Kasper said. "The guys are working hard and we feel we have a good mix of key veterans and outstanding young players. We're getting there. If we could've turned some of those ties into wins, especially at home, I think we would be a lot happier."

The eight ties have already doubled last year's total and are two short of the club record. While three of those deadlocks have ended quietly, five have provided great theater. United relinquished a two-goal lead in the second half and settled for a season-opening draw at Los Angeles, but also scored equalizers during added time against New England and Toronto, recovered from a two-goal deficit in the last 13 minutes at Chivas USA and stunned Seattle on an own goal in the 87th minute on Wednesday.

Though encouraged by his team's persistence, Coach Tom Soehn has been troubled by the propensity for putting itself in stressful situations.

"We can't continue to let it happen and hope to come back every time," he said. "It's going to cost us."

But the rallies -- which also included a late two-goal uprising that beat New York, 3-2 -- have revealed team character that was lacking last season when United was built around Marcelo Gallardo, a past-his-prime Argentine playmaker who didn't really bond with his teammates, on or off the field.

"That's the difference between this year and last year -- everyone is fighting for each other and we've developed a good chemistry," said midfielder-forward Santino Quaranta, who is second on the MLS assists chart with six. "We've got the experienced guys who have been through this before and we've got the young guys who never stop fighting."

Rookies Chris Pontius (13 starts, 4 goals, 2 assists) and Rodney Wallace (14 starts, 2 goals, 3 assists) have made immediate impacts, while preseason signing Dejan Jakovic has stabilized the back line. Right back Bryan Namoff is enjoying the best season of his nine-year career and veteran forwards Luciano Emilio and Jaime Moreno have scored five goals apiece.

But perhaps the most important development was in goal, where Josh Wicks, who played in USL1, American soccer's second division, for three years before serving as a Los Angeles backup in 2008, has seized the starting job with several outstanding performances. Wicks's emergence is almost certain to hasten the departure of Louis Crayton, the high-priced starter signed late last year whose contract expires at the end of this month.

Nonetheless, United has been far from perfect. Marc Burch and Fred have suffered from inconsistency, reacquired midfielder Christian Gómez is still finding his rhythm, and injuries to Moreno and Ben Olsen have affected leadership.

Soehn and Kasper, however, believe the club's deepest roster in years will help offset the shortcomings and provide options in a summer that also includes the U.S. Open Cup and CONCACAF Champions League, the region's club tournament.

Along those lines, Kasper continues to monitor the international player market, which reopens July 15, and would have some salary cap space if Crayton is dropped. However, he cautioned that "you don't want to add players just for the sake of it. It's got to be the right fit. We've got a good group here and we think we can go a long way with it."

United Notes: Fred will not be available against the Rapids because of an adductor strain suffered in Seattle. Moreno remains out with a hamstring injury. . . . The Rapids are without eight-goal scorer Conor Casey, who is with the U.S. national team at the Confederations Cup in South Africa. . . . Colorado, riding a six-game unbeaten streak, is 2-0-2 at home with four goals conceded.

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