No one around MLS is surprised to see D.C. United back in the playoffs, exhibiting a menacing brand of soccer and threatening to win another championship. After all, since the league was founded nine-plus years ago, United has made October and November its personal postseason playground.
But United's route to this year's playoffs was anything but predictable -- six months of annoying distractions and fickle performances.
And just when it seemed everything had fallen into place prior to tonight's first-round opener in Chicago, there was more commotion: 16-year-old forward Freddy Adu venting his frustration about playing time and suggesting he would be better off elsewhere.
"The players are ready, mentally and physically, even though we've had some disruption. It doesn't affect our work," Coach Peter Nowak said yesterday before the team headed to the airport.
"This is not a spelling bee competition. You cannot win the championship with your mouth. You win with your brain and your heart."
The players insist Adu's remarks did not divert their preparations for the two-game series against the Fire or sidetrack their efforts to win a second consecutive title, fifth overall. But where Adu fits into Nowak's plans and whether the young player will be in a proper frame of mind remain uncertain.
"We've tried to put it behind us and I think Freddy understands it too," midfielder Dema Kovalenko said. "He didn't mean to hurt the team. He knows he is a big part of this team -- I tell him all the time and so do the other guys. We need him. He can make the difference."
Adu has not granted any interviews since his outburst on Tuesday.
Even if he had not said a word, Adu was probably not going to be in Nowak's starting plans. United is at full strength, a situation that has often relegated the explosive teenager to a second-half appearance.
What the game will look like by then is anyone's guess. United stumbled in its final two regular season matches, losing to the desperate MetroStars and coming from behind twice to tie last-place Columbus. However, United is renowned for enhancing its play this time of year.
"It's playoff time, it's what we've been waiting for," team captain Jaime Moreno said. "We'll know what it's all about. . . . We have a great opportunity again. All the work we put into the whole season, it's got to be worth it."
After tonight's game, United and the Fire will wrap up the series Oct. 30 at RFK Stadium. Whoever scores the most total goals will advance to the Eastern Conference final against the MetroStars or the top-seeded New England Revolution.
The only advantage United gained by finishing ahead of Chicago in the regular season is being able to host the second game, which, in case of a tie in aggregate scoring, would be followed by overtime and, if necessary, penalty kicks.
Nowak dismissed suggestions that United might be content playing for a tie on the road.
"The first game is always the key to the series," he said. "You don't want to go with the mind-set, 'Oh, we have a home game and we can recover for that.' The most important thing is to go there knowing we can beat these guys. We beat them last time in Chicago and we're not going to step back and say we have another game at home. It doesn't make sense."
D.C. and Chicago have played some wild games this year. After a 1-1 tie in April, United came back from a two-goal deficit to win, 4-3, on Bobby Boswell's late goal in June; the Fire responded two weeks later for a 4-3 win; and D.C. raced to a three-goal lead before holding on for a 3-2 triumph in August.
"I like our matchup," Fire Coach Dave Sarachan told reporters in Chicago. "We had two wild ones with them and we got a tie in their building -- and that's a tough place to play. We're excited."
The Fire, which missed the playoffs last year, went 1-3-1 down the stretch and finished with the third-poorest goals-against average (1.56) in the league. Only the awful expansion teams, Chivas USA and Real Salt Lake, were worse.
All of which excites United, which scored the most goals in MLS (58 in 32 matches) and averaged 2.4 per game in its final eight outings. Nowak will probably start Moreno and Santino Quaranta on the front line tonight, but he could also turn to Adu, the resurgent Jamil Walker or newcomer Lucio Filomeno at some point.
"Everybody is talking about last year and what we accomplished, but we've got to forget that," Kovalenko said. "This is a new year and we've got to execute to perfection."