D.C. United, MLS's most decorated team, was a disappointment on all fronts this year, capped by Sunday's 4-0 loss to the Chicago Fire in the finale of its MLS first-round playoff series. Unlike other pro sports, soccer offers chances to win outside of traditional competition, and United missed four opportunities.
In April, United was bounced from the CONCACAF Champions Cup with one of the worst losses in franchise history, a 5-0 defeat by Mexican club Pumas. In August, the club squandered a late lead and fell to Dallas on penalty kicks in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals. About a month later, United let a two-goal advantage slip away in the second half and lost to Chile's Universidad Catolica in the Copa Sudamericana.
And then there was Sunday's fiasco, which was preceded by the distraction of forward Freddy Adu sounding off about playing time. The teenager suggested he might be better off playing elsewhere next season and was suspended for the first game of the playoffs.
"I'm thinking about things all the time, I analyze things, and it just wasn't our year," midfielder Dema Kovalenko said about this season. "If you look at our season, you think we had a great season. We got a lot of points [in the league standings], but at the end of the day, what did we win? We entered four tournaments and we didn't win" anything.
"That's disappointing, and that's what it comes down to: good season, good this, good that, it doesn't matter. Results are what matter and we didn't do that."
Sunday's dismal loss was all but over by halftime and ended United's hopes of a fifth MLS crown in 10 years.
"This is not acceptable," team president Kevin Payne said. "What disappoints me the most is that we lost critical games in competitions where we made simple errors, whether it's lack of focus or lack of concentration. In many cases, you see the same guys making the same mistakes. It's got to get better."
So what will United look like next year?
Payne already has decided to exercise the option on Coach Peter Nowak's contract. Adu is expected to return, but if he and Nowak can't find common ground after a testy season, a trade will not be out of the question.
United must also address salary cap issues. Assuming Adu stays, at least a portion of his $550,000 salary likely will count against the team's $1.8 million cap for the first time next year. (His contract was exempt his first two seasons because of his age.) Kovalenko and midfielder Ben Olsen earned $165,000 each this season, well above the league average and probably more than United is willing to pay a pair of blue-collar players. They might be asked to take pay cuts in order to remain with the team.
United's most important players, Jaime Moreno and Christian Gomez, combined to make almost $320,000 and produced standout regular seasons. However, both disappeared in the playoffs, stunting an attack that led the league in scoring over the 61/2-month campaign.
In the final four matches of the year -- two regular season, two playoff -- United scored only one goal in the run of play and three overall.
Santino Quaranta ($120,000) remained a mystery, a versatile attacker who excels with the U.S. national team but underachieves with his club. He was benched at halftime Sunday after a second consecutive miserable performance.
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando received favorable reviews all year, but his blunder in the 10th minute Sunday led to Chicago's first goal and set the tone for the one-sided match.
United must also address the defensive unit, which was adequate most of the year but badly exposed Sunday. Outside backs Brandon Prideaux and Bryan Namoff faltered late in the year and central back Facundo Erpen, who displaced rookie Bobby Boswell in September, was wildly erratic.
The departure of team captain Ryan Nelsen to England during the last offseason left the back line without a intimidating physical presence and an emotional leader.
On the bright side, the club is looking forward to the return of Alecko Eskandarian, United's leading goal scorer in 2004 and most valuable player of the last MLS Cup who has been sidelined since mid-June after suffering a concussion. He has been told by doctors he should be healthy by December.
Forward Jamil Walker and midfielders Josh Gros, Brian Carroll and Clyde Simms are nice low-budget, complementary players, but the club will probably need new primary contributors.
Payne declined to discuss possible changes, but it seems certain there will be several.
"We'll sit down and spend a lot of time figuring out where we go from here," he said. "We've got a long time to figure that out now, unfortunately."
United Notes: D.C. is tentatively scheduled to open the 2006 season at home April 1 or 2 in a nationally televised match against an opponent to be determined.