Lost in the commotion of Freddy Adu's suspension last weekend was this troubling and bewildering development: D.C. United, MLS's highest-scoring team, is not scoring goals.
Friday night's 0-0 tie with the Chicago Fire in the opener of a two-game, first-round playoff series continued a sluggish stretch for United.
After scoring 16 times in six games between Aug. 31 and Oct. 5, United has produced only three goals in the last three outings. Perhaps most surprising from MLS's most elegant team was the fact that only one of those strikes came in the run of play.
The return match with the Fire will be played Sunday afternoon at RFK Stadium.
"It does not concern me," Coach Peter Nowak said yesterday after a lively practice in the cold rain. "We know we have enough difference-makers in our team and everybody can change the game and score the goals."
Players cited a possible lack of motivation for their offensive troubles in the final two regular season games; their playoff berth had already been secured and the postseason matchup all but settled.
There were also mitigating factors Friday: a narrow field, a naturally conservative posture on the road, and the absence of injured midfielder Ben Olsen, who plays a significant role linking the defense to the attack.
In the end, however, United simply failed to generate a consistent attack, finishing with a meager four shots (nine below its average) and none on goal.
"They had a game plan to not let us get comfortable and they did a good job," forward Santino Quaranta said. "I think they are going to play the same way this weekend, but there's no way they can sustain it for 90 minutes because of the way we attack at home. We're going to go at them a lot more than we did last week.
"We want to finish the game as fast as we can. At any time, there could be an explosion."
United didn't find any space in the middle of the field and failed to utilize the tapered flanks. The heart of the attack, playmaker Christian Gomez and creative forward Jaime Moreno, was unusually quiet.
The only serious scoring threat came in the 72nd minute when Moreno's run was thwarted by defender Jim Curtin in the box. Moreno went down, but no penalty kick was called.
Whenever Moreno and Quaranta tried to play the ball with their backs to the goal, the Fire closed quickly and disrupted United's plans. It was an encouraging effort by Chicago, which finished 10th in the 12-team league in goals allowed and yielded 11 goals to United in four regular season meetings.
"We didn't want to lose the game, so maybe we were a little more cautious than normal," United midfielder Josh Gros said. "It was just one of those days where it just wasn't clicking for us."
On the broader RFK field, however, United plans to attack with more vigor and make use of its dangerous reserves.
In Game 1, with Adu suspended, Nowak didn't make a move until the 86th minute, when he inserted the swift-footed Jamil Walker. He will probably start Moreno and Quaranta again Sunday, but could turn much sooner to Walker or Adu, whose suspension has been lifted.
"We play at home right now," Nowak said. "It's a different game."
Soccer Notes: Olsen (strained calf) was held out of practice again yesterday and probably won't resume workouts until tomorrow. . . . Forward Alecko Eskandarian, out since June after suffering a concussion, has discontinued his rehabilitation until December. . . .
Nowak's full-time home, a few blocks from the water in Naples, Fla., suffered only minimal damage from Hurricane Wilma, a team spokesman said. . . .
Kansas City's Jimmy Conrad was named the MLS defender of the year. His teammate, midfielder Chris Klein, won the comeback player of the year award, and Real Salt Lake's Brian Kamler received humanitarian of the year honors. . . .
The No. 2 Maryland men's team (12-3-0) will host New Jersey Institute of Technology (1-7-5) tonight in the Terps' final tuneup before Saturday night's showdown with No. 4 Indiana in College Park. Virginia (10-2-2) is ranked fifth by Soccer America magazine, Virginia Tech (8-3-4) is No. 12 and James Madison (9-4-2) 22nd. Virginia's women's team (12-4-1) is eighth.