As D.C. United's training session neared its conclusion yesterday, each of the club's three injured defenders were participating at different comfort levels--an indication of the personnel uncertainties heading into the deciding third game of Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference finals Saturday at RFK Stadium.
Carlos Llamosa was mixing it up with the other healthy starters, appearing ready to return to the lineup against Columbus after being sidelined for a month with a sprained knee ligament. Diego Sonora casually passed the ball along the right flank during a short-field scrimmage but, because of a sore calf, avoided contact and excessive running.
And as a precautionary measure, Eddie Pope, who sprained his left ankle during the 5-1 loss to the Crew in Game 2 on Sunday, worked out lightly off to the side with trainer Rick Guter.
"These guys, they want to play," Coach Thomas Rongen said. "They have tremendous pride. They've been challenged in this series and they want to be on the field."
With two days of preparations remaining, Rongen said he is confident that Llamosa and Pope, United's all-star central defenders, will be ready. However, he is not so certain about Sonora, the starting right back.
"I don't want to jeopardize his health," Rongen said. "I don't want to jeopardize the team's chances either, but it's really a day-to-day thing with him. It's up to Diego, the doctors and myself to see what we want to do on Saturday and make the right choice for the team's sake."
Rongen hinted that, if Sonora is not available, he might alter his alignment and use three defenders--Pope, Llamosa and Jeff Agoos--instead of four and deploy five midfielders. That might mean Canadian veteran Geoff Aunger will be inserted into the defensive midfield alongside Richie Williams, giving United a much-needed physical presence against the Crew, which surprised D.C. with its aggressiveness in Game 2.
Rongen also could move Carey Talley, who has been starting for Llamosa, into central midfield instead of Aunger. But Talley didn't play well on Sunday in Columbus and may be more effective as a second-half substitute.
Asked if he planned any changes based on poor individual performances last weekend, Rongen said: "There's no reason for that. The series is tied, that last game was an aberration, there's no reason to change a lot of things. I think the only changes you will see are based on injuries, not on past performances."
Llamosa hasn't played since getting injured in the second half of United's regular season finale against New England on Oct. 9, and although Talley was effective in the first-round playoff series against Miami and in Game 1 against Columbus, the club missed Llamosa's experience and rugged tackling.
Pope was outstanding in the series opener against the Crew, but when he left at halftime last weekend, United's defense was devastated by the rejuvenated Columbus attack. Pope didn't practice the last two days, but Guter pronounced him in good condition yesterday and said he expected him to train at close to full strength today.
United Notes: The club is represented in three of the five major MLS postseason award categories: Jaime Moreno and Marco Etcheverry joined scoring champion Jason Kreis of Dallas as most valuable player finalists; Rongen, Dallas's Dave Dir and Los Angeles's Sigi Schmid are the coaching candidates; and Agoos will compete with Chicago's Lubos Kubik and Los Angeles's Robin Fraser for best defender.
The rookie of the year finalists are Miami's Jay Heaps, Los Angeles's Simon Elliott and San Jose's Richard Mulrooney, and the top goalkeepers are Tampa Bay's Scott Garlick, Dallas's Matt Jordan and Los Angeles's Kevin Hartman. Winners will be announced next week.