Nearly seven months since it started, D.C. United's regular season comes to a close tonight with some of the same uncertainties that the club began with on that March evening in Tampa.
Despite having Major League Soccer's best record, United (23-8) needs a strong performance tonight against the New England Revolution at RFK Stadium to reverse a recent rough stretch. United's defense has given up nine goals in the past three games (two losses and a tie) and the attack has lacked its usual inventiveness and efficiency.
"This game for us means a lot, not in terms of the standings but in terms of our own psyche," Coach Thomas Rongen said yesterday at United Park. "I just want to play well tomorrow and regain that spark that maybe was missing most of the week."
Rongen said he has made two changes to the starting lineup: At forward, A.J. Wood replaces Jaime Moreno, who is serving a one-game league suspension for an accumulation of yellow cards; and Carey Talley goes in at right back for Diego Sonora, who moves into the midfield and bumps rookie Antonio Otero.
It's the sort of tinkering Rongen had not planned heading into the playoffs, but following Wednesday's embarrassing 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay at home, some change was needed. The coaching staff is excited about Otero's future, but he may not be ready for a prominent role. Meanwhile, John Maessner, who has been a regular starter since being acquired from Miami in midseason, appears to be the odd man out at the moment.
After watching tapes of Wednesday's game, Rongen said he didn't think his club played as poorly as he initially thought.
"Tomorrow will be a telling tale obviously of how we respond," he said. "We had a lot of energy; we just didn't direct it well. We were mentally a little gassed. Now I can tell we are back where we want to be, and I think we'll see the results of that against New England."
While United is preparing for the playoffs, the fifth-place Revolution needs to win to stay in contention for the playoffs. A point behind in the race for the Eastern Conference's final berth, New England also needs fourth-place Miami to lose to Colorado or win in a shootout (which is only worth one point) tonight in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
United, the top team in the East, awaits Miami or New England in the first round of a best-of-three series, which begins next Saturday night at RFK. New England's visit will mark Revolution midfielder John Harkes's first game against his former team since being traded by D.C. during the offseason for draft picks. Harkes missed the previous three games between the teams because of injuries and U.S. national team duty at the Confederations Cup.
"Coming back to D.C. and playing at RFK Stadium is emotional for me," he said. "It is something that I am looking forward to."
In addition to Harkes, the Revolution has three other former United players: goalkeeper Jeff Causey, who starts in place of departed player-coach Walter Zenga; defender Mario Gori; and midfielder Kris Kelderman.
MLS Notes: With a season low of about 10,000 on Wednesday, United slipped from first to third in average attendance at 17,201 behind Los Angeles (17,632) and Columbus (17,610). Last year United finished fifth with an average of 16,008. . . .
The league has approved San Jose's request to change its name from the Clash to the Earthquakes, and the club is expected to announce the switch, as well as new team colors, in the coming weeks. Earthquakes was the name of the North American Soccer League club in the Bay Area in the 1970s and '80s.
united vs. revolution
Where: RFK Stadium.
When: 7:30 p.m.
Radio: WACA-1540 (Spanish).
Records: United 23-8, 57 points; Revolution 11-20, 25 points.
D.C. Probable Starters: GK -- Tom Presthus; D -- Carey Talley, Eddie Pope, Carlos Llamosa, Jeff Agoos; MF -- Richie Williams, Diego Sonora, Ben Olsen (5 goals, 11 assists), Marco Etcheverry (4, 17); F -- Jaime Moreno (10, 13), Roy Lassiter (18, 11).
Revolution Top Players: F Joe-Max Moore (14 goals, 8 assists), F Giovanni Savarese (10, 2), MF John Harkes, MF Ivan McKinley.