No matter the sport or level of competition, a team with talent might be expected in the course of a season to put together a string of good games. Should such a streak come near the end of a season, it usually turns out to be timely.
This is precisely what has happened for D.C. United. During much of MLS's long season, United produced only so-so results that kept the club in contention but gave little indication that it could win a championship. Five straight victories, however, and seven in its last eight league games have catapulted United into the favorite's role for Saturday night's Eastern Conference final against New England at RFK and given the team a chance to play for the MLS Cup on Nov. 14.
"After the loss in Chicago [a 3-1 setback Sept. 4], I think [the players] realized this is no joke anymore, they are too good not to use their potential," United Coach Peter Nowak said yesterday after an intra-squad scrimmage on the RFK auxiliary field. "We had a couple of wins, a couple of losses, and at the end of the day we just started to get it."
What they started to get was the first-year coach's approach to the game -- adhering strictly to detailed preparation, practicing hard, then playing aggressively at every opportunity in the games but with a tight defense as well. That Nowak's system has taken hold has been a major factor in the turnaround -- that and healthier players, the development of younger ones and important additions to the roster during the season.
"Team defending. Moving the ball quicker. Just being more of a team," midfielder Ben Olsen said in trying to explain United's late surge. "I thought we got a little bit individual toward the middle of the season. Once we rededicated ourselves to team soccer, it worked out."
Second-year forward Alecko Eskandarian, from the University of Virginia, blossomed into a scorer, and celebrated rookie Freddy Adu has continued to mature despite all the attention he has received.
"This is what I was looking for," Nowak said of Eskandarian, "the guy who's going to give me the answers. Alecko gave us the best possible answers he could, he scores goals."
As for Adu, Nowak described him as having developed from "playing on a one-way street, meaning going only forward," to realizing the importance of defense, too.
The signing of midfielder Christian Gomez from Argentina in August was "very significant," according to Dave Kasper, the team's technical director, who along with former coach Ray Hudson first scouted Gomez almost two years ago.
"He's been able to link players, between our midfielders and our forwards, and make plays," Kasper said. "He always looks to go forward."
Veteran forward Jaime Moreno, Eskandarian and Gomez have led the attack. The in-season acquisition of Gomez so far has turned out to be reminiscent of another South American player, Moreno, joining D.C. United in the midst of the 1996 season when he helped lead the club to its first MLS championship, the first of three in four years.
United also is playing with a lively style not unlike those teams.
"I really wanted to come in this year and make a statement and prove to everyone who was writing me off last year that I could play," Eskandarian said. "I think I've gotten better as the season's gone along. I've learned a lot."
His two goals in a 3-1 victory over Columbus on June 19 increased his confidence.
"My teammates told me not to be satisfied with that two-goal performance, just to keep going and try to be a threat every single game," he said. "That's the mentality I've had the rest of the season, that I believe I can score every single game."
It's how he imagined things, way back in the spring.
"After the first game, when we beat San Jose, the defending champion [and he scored a goal in the 2-1 victory], we all knew we had a championship-caliber team," Eskandarian said. "And then, late in the season, when we started to put those wins together, that was when we really figured out the system that we were playing."
Olsen said he believed United could be a championship team after it started its five-game winning streak with a 1-0 victory over the MetroStars on the road Oct. 2. "I think we all started believing in our chances of doing this whole thing," Olsen said.
By then, the coaching staff had found what Nowak called "the best combination" that has taken United to within one win of the league title game.
"Like opening [a] vault," he said. "If you want to open the vault, you've got the numbers, [you go] left and right, and you try to find the combination to open the vault. We are very close to crunching those numbers and opening the vault because the MLS Cup is inside."