By Ridge Mahoney
It could prove be nothing more than sniping by the desperate, but scuttlebutt around the league is that D.C. United's lackluster finish to the regular season may be borne of more than indifference.
A stagnant back line, a creaky Jaime Moreno, and a propensity of several players to bark at referees or flop to the ground in search of free kicks have opponents hoping United can be upset in the playoffs. It rolled to the regular season title with a 15-7-10 record and led the league in goals scored with 52, but won just one of its last seven games.
In its final four home matches, it conceded nine goals and won once - a 4-3 victory over the New York Red Bulls. Its only league wins after the All-Star break were the Red Bulls victory and an away game against Chivas USA.
By playing at times with three attackers and matching up against United's defenders one-on-one, New England (2-1) and Chicago (3-2) won at RFK on the last two weekends of the regular season; D.C. will play one of those teams if it eliminates the Red Bulls in the first playoff round.
Chicago also knocked off United, 3-0, in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals before beating the Galaxy, 3-1, to win the title.
"By beating them twice in meaningful games it gives us confidence that if we meet them in the playoffs we have a good chance against them," says Fire coach Dave Sarachan. "Of course we have to get there first and they have the league's best record and some great players."
Coach Peter Nowakpromised to rest Moreno down the stretch, but he wound up playing every game and logging more minutes than every field player except Brian Carroll. If he isn't effective, teams have a better chance of shutting down Christian Gomez, the team's top scorer with 14 goals and 11 assists. Flipping between the flanks has seemed to unsettle midfielder Josh Gros and teams know him better; what once were scything, incisive runs now tend to run aground over the endline.
Despite leaking goals near the end of the season, United ranked second with 38 goals allowed (behind New England at 35). Eight of those goals were penalty kicks, which can be interpreted two ways: United gave up only 30 in regular play, which is good, but it defended so carelessly it gave away eight penalties, which was more than any other team.
United has no shortage of positives heading into the playoffs. Goalkeeper Troy Perkins and defender Bryan Namoff have contributed strong seasons, Freddy Adu set a personal best this year with eight assists, and the Gomez-Moreno combination is still one of the most potent in the league.
Facing the Red Bulls and former United coach Bruce Arena in the first round is a potential banana skin. Temperatures for the Meadowlands regular season finale last weekend dropped into the 30s and few United players are fond of its artificial surface. And in the first round last year, United tied 0-0 in Chicago only to be skunked, 4-0, at RFK, so if United doesn't shake off its late-season malaise, the homefield advantage may be moot.