At the midway point of the MLS season, D.C. United isn't much different than it was last year: a .500 record, fickle scoring efficiency, a revolving lineup and a promising teenager aching for playing time.
The biggest difference, however, is a shift in expectation.
Last year, coming off four losing seasons, United's goal was to return to respectability. However, winning the league title with a torrid three months of soccer fueled the promise of a fast start this season. It didn't happen and, with a 6-6-4 record and a fifth-place standing in the six-team Eastern Conference, United's fans are beginning to express disappointment and concern.
Here's a breakdown of United's first-half successes and failures:
* Biggest Surprise: Bobby Boswell. Undrafted rookies aren't supposed to replace departed all-stars and play every minute of every match, but that's exactly what the soft-spoken Boswell has done following team captain Ryan Nelsen's offseason departure to England. Boswell's inexperience has been exposed at times, but he has largely held his ground in the strategic center of a three-man backline. He also chipped in a dramatic late-game goal to beat Chicago last month.
* Biggest Disappointment: Alecko Eskandarian. What has happened to United's emerging striker? He led the team in goals a year ago and was named the MLS Cup most valuable player, launching himself into U.S. national team contention and becoming a favorite to win the 2005 MLS scoring title. But knee and quadriceps injuries hampered him early in the season, and when scoring opportunities did emerge, he failed -- 12 appearances, 661 minutes, 0 goals, 1 assist. The latest setback is post-concussion syndrome.
* Turning Point?: The 4-3 victory over Chicago, followed by a 2-0 win over New England in mid-June, demonstrated United's big-game potential. In the first match, D.C. came back from a two-goal deficit and won on Boswell's goal. In the second, against the previously undefeated Revolution, United scored two early goals, got strong goalkeeping and displayed game-long intensity in front of a rabid home crowd. Whether the club can replicate that latter formula regularly over the next three months remains to be seen.
* Draft Results: United selected midfielder Nick Van Sicklen in the second round and defender Tim Merritt in the fourth. It grabbed forward Matt Nickell, goalkeeper Andrew Terris (later waived) and midfielder Shawn Kuykendall in the supplemental draft. When Nickell entered late Saturday against Kansas City, it marked the first time any of the five had appeared in a regular season match. Kuykendall has shown the most promise in reserve games and could play soon.
* Intangibles: Maybe it's the fact that RFK Stadium is no longer used exclusively for soccer. Maybe it's the temporary grass that covers the baseball infield. Whatever the reason, United has lost its near invincibility at home. Last year, after a 2-2-1 start at RFK, United went 12 games without a loss (8-0-4), including the postseason. This year, D.C. is 4-3-1 and has allowed 14 goals. On the flip side, United is actually carrying itself respectfully on the road (2-3-3) and has already equaled last year's win total. All three losses have been by one goal and the club has yielded only six goals overall.
Nick Rimando has cut down on mistakes, continues to be an excellent shot blocker, distributes the ball more effectively and has taken a prominent leadership role. Last year Rimando and Troy Perkins shared the job, but barring a sudden regression, it's Rimando's to keep this season.
None of the starters in last year's MLS Cup are around: Nelsen is in England, Mike Petke was traded to Colorado and Bryan Namoff has missed most of the season because of injuries. Nonetheless, Boswell has performed admirably, veteran Brandon Prideaux has been steady and newcomer John Wilson has displayed attacking prowess on the left side. Reserve David Stokes remains a mystery. Club officials are also getting close to finally signing an Argentine defender.
Other than the clever Christian Gomez and explosive Freddy Adu, United's midfield is a blue-collar crew that scraps for 90 minutes but struggles to score or pass from the flanks effectively. Englishman Steve Guppy's superb crossing has been shelved by injuries. Dema Kovalenko and Ben Olsen seem incapable of scoring and Josh Gros has been quiet lately. Defensive midfielder Clyde Simms was a nice signing, but Brian Carroll has hit some rough spots.
Eskandarian isn't scoring. Jaime Moreno has maintained his creative flair, but five of his team-high seven goals have come on penalty kicks. Adu has shown occasional flashes of brilliance when he's played up front. Santino Quaranta was just starting to come around when he got called up to the national team. Nana Kuffour is raw. Jamil Walker has been a disappointment, although a three-goal performance Monday against minor league Rochester (N.Y.) helped his fading cause.
* Outlook: It's looking as though New England and Chicago will battle for first place in the East and Columbus will finish last, leaving D.C., Kansas City and New York/New Jersey to scramble for the final two playoff spots. United is about to enter a crucial stretch: vs. San Jose (unbeaten in seven straight), at Kansas City (where D.C. hasn't won in four years), at Los Angeles (undefeated at home) and at Chicago (7-2-1 at home). If that weren't enough, jammed into the schedule is a July 28 exhibition against one of the best teams in the world, English champion Chelsea.
United Notes: Near the end of practice yesterday, Eskandarian was awaiting crosses in the penalty area when a high ball approached him.
"No headers!" he yelled at the passer.
It's not a normal response from a usually fearless striker, but Eskandarian has still not fully recovered from the concussion he suffered June 18 -- an injury that might sideline him for a fourth straight match tonight when United faces surging San Jose at RFK.
"I tried a couple headers [Wednesday] and it probably wasn't the smartest thing to do," he said. "So I told the guys not to give me any headers [yesterday] because I don't want any more headaches. If I'm going to head the ball, I might as well wait until [tonight] and worry about the headaches after the game."
Said Coach Peter Nowak: "We need to be very, very careful. We don't want to be in a situation where [Eskandarian plays and] we regret the decision."
Meantime, Moreno remains questionable after missing last weekend's match against Kansas City with an ankle injury. Moreno, the team's scoring leader with seven goals and four assists, participated in full workouts yesterday.
"I want to play, but at the same time," he said, "I don't want to cause some other problem." . . .
Gomez was named one of seven reserves on the MLS all-star team, which will face English club Fulham on July 30 in Columbus, Ohio.