D.C. United Clings to Shaky Hold on First Place in Eastern Conference

With four starters missing, D.C. United will try to contain the talented Guillermo Barros Schelotto, center.
With four starters missing, D.C. United will try to contain the talented Guillermo Barros Schelotto, center. (By Gus Ruelas -- Associated Press)
By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 4, 2009

In its previous MLS match, D.C. United fielded an experienced lineup and suffered the worst defeat of the year. In its most recent outing, the club used mostly reserves and was almost humiliated by a bunch of college kids.

Tonight, with four usual starters missing, United is likely to draw from both groups to reinforce its tenuous hold on first place in the congested Eastern Conference.

"We gave some guys rests who needed it, gave some guys a few minutes who needed it, and now it pushes us along," Coach Tom Soehn said yesterday. "We're obviously missing a lot of guys, but it's a great opportunity for the others to reestablish" themselves.

Forwards Jaime Moreno and Luciano Emilio, the club's top scorers with five goals apiece, remain out. They have targeted July 18 against Colorado at RFK Stadium to return from hamstring and knee injuries, respectively. Midfielder-forward Santino Quaranta (U.S. national team) and defender Dejan Jakovic (Canada) are competing in the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Those absences, combined with the release of goalkeeper Louis Crayton and rookie defender Anthony Peters before the contract deadline this week, have left United with 18 players, a figure that eliminated the usual intrigue surrounding the make-up of the game-day roster. For this trip, everyone who was healthy and available boarded the jet to central Ohio.

Midfielder Fred said he has recovered from an adductor injury suffered in Seattle on June 17 and is ready to contribute after training all week.

Columbus will also be short-handed as midfielder Robbie Rogers and defender Chad Marshall, who have combined for 25 league starts, have joined the U.S. camp in Seattle. The Crew, however, does have Argentine midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the 2008 league MVP who, at age 36, leads MLS with 10 goals this season.

"He drifts into really good spots and catches teams by surprise," Soehn said. "When he gets the ball, he obviously has the pedigree where, if you give him time and space, he is going to hurt you. We have to make sure we do a better job of not allowing him to get the ball and when he gets it, make sure we are tight and force him to play backwards."

With four points separating the top five teams in the Eastern Conference, a series of unfortunate events tonight could drop United (5-3-8, 23 points) into third place. The club's primary concern, though, is its first meeting against reigning MLS Cup champion Columbus (5-3-7, 22) in the third of six league road matches in a seven-game stretch.

"Our guys know that we have to separate ourselves from the rest of the pack," goalkeeper Josh Wicks said. "This game is a big stepping stone. We have to show that we are hungry for it."

While United stumbled in recent weeks, conceding six goals in consecutive league games at Seattle and Colorado and struggling to defeat an amateur team from New Jersey in the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday, the Crew is 5-1-5 since an 0-2-2 start and seeking to extend its regular season unbeaten streak at home to 17, one short of the league record set by San Jose in 2004-05. Columbus's last loss at Crew Stadium came in June 2008 to the Earthquakes.

Soehn sees tonight's game as another big test in a long season. United passed the first one, defeating Chicago three weeks ago at RFK Stadium to overtake the Fire for first place.

"Now we've got a situation where someone is trying to take something from us," he said. "It's always a little bit easier to be the underdog trying to get there. Now we have to show that we are a good enough team to hold on to what we have."

United Notes: The club hopes to look at potential new players at practice the week of July 13, General Manager Dave Kasper said. He declined to identify any potential candidates but said United is "looking for cover in a number of spots." The signing period opens July 15. . . . Emilio said his strained knee ligament is improving steadily but he doesn't expect to play in the Open Cup quarterfinal Tuesday against the third-tier Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders at Maryland SoccerPlex.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company