If you're looking for that one defining moment that turned around D.C. United's wobbly season -- a rousing late-game comeback perhaps, or a midseason revelation that lifted the erratic club from mediocrity to contending status -- you're not going to find it.
There was the obligatory players-only meeting a few weeks ago and a couple of contentious matches that stirred the emotions and tightened the team's bond. But everyone around the club seems to agree that United's resurgence can be primarily attributed to its ability to implement rookie coach Peter Nowak's high-energy, ball-possession system on a consistent basis.
Nothing more, nothing less.
"I didn't change anything, but I think the players realized the way we train, the way we play, that's how it must be done," Nowak said yesterday. "Sometimes we treated the game too easy and we didn't get the results we were supposed to get. We had a couple of games where we didn't show up. Right now, it's different. The players realized it's not a joke anymore. We were coming to the end of the regular season and, with all of those things we talked about, it was time to execute."
United (11-10-9) heads into its MLS first-round playoff series against the New York/New Jersey MetroStars (11-12-7) with five victories in its last six games, including a season-best three-game winning streak. Game 1 is tonight at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., followed by the return leg of the two-game, total-goals series next weekend in Washington.
United has won as many games the last three weeks as it did between June 1 and Aug. 11 -- an end-of-season rally that propelled the club out of danger of missing the playoffs and into second place in the Eastern Conference behind Columbus, which has an MLS-record 18-game unbeaten streak going into a playoff series with New England.
"To me, the season is about peaks and valleys, and it's about hitting your peak at the right time," veteran defender Mike Petke said. "We always had the talent, but it's a long season and it wears on you. . . . I'm not saying we're at our peak, but we're definitely on the rise."
Added forward Jaime Moreno: "As a team, everyone got connected. I don't think there's a secret."
Besides buying into Nowak's philosophy, United was boosted by the return of several injured players and the addition of Argentine Christian Gomez, who has taken over the playmaking responsibilities and contributed four goals in nine appearances since signing in August. His presence in central midfield has especially benefited Moreno, an MVP hopeful who can now play farther up in the attack and not be burdened with creating as many opportunities as he once was.
Moreno had a eerily similar impact on United upon his arrival in the middle of the 1996 season, when his creative skills eased the pressure on then-stars Marco Etcheverry and Raul Diaz Arce, and helped United overcome a sluggish start to win the inaugural MLS championship.
Gomez "has brought that attack-minded play to our team," said second-year forward Alecko Eskandarian. "The scary part is, we're just getting to know each other, so it's going to get better and better."
United's improvements can be seen in other critical areas, as well. Team captain Ryan Nelsen, perhaps MLS's top central defender, returned to the lineup following abdominal surgery and has anchored a backline that has yielded four goals in the last six matches. Petke has rebounded from a rough start, Bryan Namoff has stayed consistent and veterans Brandon Prideaux and Ezra Hendrickson have contributed off the bench. Nick Rimando is a fixture in goal again after watching rookie Troy Perkins start for four months.
The defensive contributions haven't come from just the defenders. Active midfielders and forwards have effectively chased the ball all over the field and pressured opponents into giveaways.
"It's enjoyable to go home after the game and watch the replay on TV," Petke said. "I'm watching late at night and sometimes I see Eskandarian sprinting back 40 yards and I say, 'You've got to be kidding me! He never did that last year.' I'm not knocking him at all -- it's just that it wasn't enforced last year. Everyone is working for each other and working for the team. It's something that has developed."
Midfielder Ben Olsen said the players "had a real heart-to-heart about a month ago. We got away from what gave us success early -- pressure on the ball and overall competing. I think we lost that somehow this summer. We hit rock bottom, we reanalyzed things and we came back strong. We're also healthy. You can't underestimate how important that is."
With a healthy roster, Nowak has been able to settle on a cohesive lineup. Dema Kovalenko has been transformed from a defensive midfielder into a left-sided player, rookie Josh Gros shifted from the left flank to the right and Olsen joined the reenergized Brian Carroll behind Gomez, who has built a lethal chemistry with front-runners Eskandarian and Moreno.
It's a far cry from last year, when fourth-place United stumbled into the playoffs with a disjointed lineup and was promptly eliminated by Chicago.
"I can't explain how different it is," Eskandarian said. "Last year wasn't a team, it really wasn't. . . . It was a roller-coaster, but this year we've stayed consistent with our approach. Maybe our results haven't been consistent, but our mentality has and you can see the difference."