With new lineup, D.C. United might have unlocked the combination

The re-insertion of Chris Pontius -- at right, with Adam Cristman -- into United's lineup has led to a three-game win streak.
The re-insertion of Chris Pontius -- at right, with Adam Cristman -- into United's lineup has led to a three-game win streak. (Ned Dishman/getty Images)
By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2010

There was hope in the days after D.C. United's win over AC Milan in a friendly on May 26 that the result might lift the spirits of a struggling team and lead to some semblance of momentum in the four remaining games before the World Cup break.

What United got out of the game, however, was more than just confidence; it found a starting lineup that seems to be the right mix for a team that had tried a number of combinations so far this season.

The re-insertion of midfielder Chris Pontius and forward Santino Quaranta, as well as the improved performance of center midfielder Stephen King and outside defender Jordan Graye, has led to better play -- both pushing forward and also in defending better as a team, players said.

"I think the biggest thing -- you can put tactics, you can put all that stuff aside -- I think what we found was the right mix of players that are going to do it on the defensive end, too," said Quaranta, who missed time with a staph infection in his thigh. "We've always known we have some talent here, but for me, the most important thing in [the Milan] game was, from the forwards to the midfield to the backs, we were collectively a really tough team to play against. And I think once we started to figure out that we're going to get chances from that, that's when we found out that we were going to move forward and continue with that attitude."

Perhaps no addition has been more important than that of Pontius, the dynamic second-year player who is returning to form following a lingering hamstring issue that kept him out for six weeks.

With Pontius playing outside midfield, opposite United's creative outside midfielder Andy Najar, Quaranta has had more space up top to create, and D.C.'s effectiveness pushing forward has benefited.

Najar, a 17-year-old Honduran who signed from United's academy this year, scored the game-winner in D.C.'s U.S. Open Cup qualifying match against Real Salt Lake on Wednesday, confidently taking on two defenders before toe-poking a goal. It was his second goal in two matches.

Having three attacking-minded players that can go at defenders forces teams to adjust to how aggressively they can play, Pontius said.

"I think any time you get three players that are putting the backs on their heels, the backs are going to sit back a little more and not want to step to you as much," Pontius said. "So, it allows us more time on the ball so we've been able to have better possession and pick and choose our spots when we go forward, and that's what you want."

With just two games remaining before the World Cup break -- Saturday against defending MLS Cup champion Real Salt Lake and Thursday at Seattle -- United's new lineup has a chance to send the club into the break on a five-game winning streak in all competitions.

That would dramatically change United's outlook from where it was just two weeks prior, when it had lost eight of its first nine league games.

"I think that you put everything else we've done these last whatever games [and] maybe people forget about" the early struggles, Quaranta said. "When you start winning games, that all gets forgotten. [United Coach] Curt [Onalfo] said it best, it's easy to coach teams and play on teams that win all the time. You find out who you are as a person, as a player and as a teammate when you're losing games and things aren't going your way, and I think we're finding out who guys are and it's been working."

United Note: D.C. captain Carey Talley will not play Saturday after suffering a concussion in a collision with a teammate during training Tuesday, according to Onalfo.

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