D.C. United's season began six months ago, but until now, it had been unable to pay full attention to defending its MLS championship.
Amid the tedious trips to Columbus and Kansas City and Colorado, the club was distracted by a regional tournament in the spring, a domestic cup competition during the summer and a prestigious international event this past month.
All ended badly for United, leaving the league title as its final pursuit.
"The realization right now is that we have one cup to play for," midfielder Ben Olsen said yesterday. "All the others are gone, and we've had some tough losses, but they're completely behind us. It's unfortunate and fortunate. It would've been nice to have stayed in those tournaments but it has also given us the opportunity to have one goal in sight."
Its schedule finally uncluttered, United's quest for a fifth MLS crown in 10 years will intensify tonight when it faces the desperate New York/New Jersey MetroStars at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
United's aim is to replicate the late surge of 2004 that carried the club through the playoffs and into the championship game.
"It's over and we need to think about the future," Coach Peter Nowak said, referring to United's latest nonleague setback, a second-half collapse that resulted in a 3-2 loss to Universidad Catolica of Chile last week in the Copa Sudamericana.
"Right now the MLS championship is more important than anything. We need to regroup and make sure we're in good form to give us a chance to win it again."
Despite its shortcomings in the Latin American tournament as well as the U.S. Open Cup in August, United (14-9-5) appears to be rounding into form in league play. It has won two straight and three of four to move into second place in the volatile Eastern Conference. Last year United went 5-1-0 down the stretch and then 3-0-1 in the postseason.
Tonight's task will not be easy. The MetroStars, 10-8-10 and three points out of the last playoff spot, are 3-1-2 in their last six games and have not lost at home in almost five months.
Both teams will be without their playmakers, United's Christian Gomez and the MetroStars' Amado Guevara, suspended for one game because of yellow cards. Teenager Freddy Adu, who hasn't started in three weeks, is Gomez's likely replacement.
As is customary, Nowak declined to reveal his lineup yesterday, but did describe Adu's performance in practice this week as "very sharp. He connected with these guys. It's another step forward for him."
Said Adu: "With Christian out, there's really no reason for me not to play, but you never know what's going to happen. The coaches might want to shift everything around."
Jaime Moreno, the club's leading scorer, and the versatile Santino Quaranta are also candidates to run the attack.
Adu, who is comfortable as a forward or midfielder, said he has learned a lot from watching the composed Gomez and, if called upon, plans to follow his example.
"Christian has a free role to do whatever," Adu said. "I didn't have that before, but now, my teammates and my coaches allow me to have that role. So I should be able to do some of the same things as Christian did, which is movement off the ball and always being available for the ball at my feet and running at people. I might be able to do it with a little more speed."
Adu could play an important role next week as well, when Quaranta misses two MLS games while on U.S. national team duty.
"Whoever it's going to be" in the playmaking role tonight, Nowak said, "it's a chance to make a case to play more the rest of the season -- give me a headache before I have to decide the lineup each game."
United Notes: Newly acquired Argentine forward Lucio Filomeno, who won't be allowed to play until his work visa is approved, traveled with the team to New Jersey in order to get further acclimated to his new teammates. Filomeno, who is recovering from a minor knee injury, is expected to become eligible next week.