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D.C. United gets back to basics
by Ridge Mahoney, May 22nd, 2007 7AM

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Former D.C. United coach Peter Nowak doesn't dwell on style points. During his rookie season as a head coach, his mantra for success was, "soccer is about running and fighting." That approach earned United its fourth MLS Cup in 2004. Jaime Moreno, Christian Gomez and then-rookie Freddy Adu brought grace and skill, but another rookie, Josh Gros, thrilled the RFK crowds with his energy and courage, Alecko Eskandarian crashed through opposing defenses to score 10 goals, demonic midfielder Dema Kovalenko was second on the team with 10 assists, and Kiwi defender Ryan Nelsen epitomized the ruggedness and determination Nowak praised. (Nelsen could also hit a nice ball out of the back, which is another element a lot of MLS teams have lacked.)

Despite posting a 31-17-16 regular-season record in 2005 and 2006 while playing the most skillful soccer in MLS, United hasn't returned to MLS Cup. Nelsen is starting in the English Premier League for Blackburn, Eskandarian plays for Toronto, Kovalenko is in New York, and Gros has been converted to left back in the 4-4-2 formation D.C. favors instead of the 3-5-2 it operated under Nowak.

About the only player to draw consistent praise this season is Ben Olsen, whose persistence and spirit - not to mention fewer tirades at referees -- has kept him in the lineup while Coach Tom Soehn shuttles players in and out looking for solutions.

United 2007 again features a glittering array of attackers - Gomez, Moreno, Fred, Luciano Emilio - yet last Saturday it beat Toronto, 2-1, with the bedrock basics it had drifted away from: hard tackles, tenacious defending, fierce marking.

Like Nowak, TFC coach Mo Johnston wants more battlers than ballerinas. He values skillful play but his first demand is commitment. Roared on by another sellout crowd, Toronto charged into challenges and scrapped for every ball before the fatigue of playing a third match in eight days took its toll. Gradually United fought its way back into the game even though it trailed at halftime.

In the first half, Facundo Erpen raced full-speed with Eskandarian for a long ball played over the top and shielded him from it until keeper Troy Perkins could collect. The crowd howled for a penalty but this was simply a case of a defender using his strength and pace and smarts. Eskandarian scored during a goalmouth scramble a minute before halftime yet United came out of the locker room determined, not discouraged, and eventually took advantage of a tiring opponent.
Just like the not-so-old days.

United equalized with a swerving Gomez free kick that defender Kevin Goldthwaite headed into his own net. Lucky? Yes, except that Erpen was right there and might have scored himself, or it could have gone in anyway, since Gomez directed it on frame as a group of players stormed the net.

United's skill won the match; after a poor TFC clearance, slack marking allowed D.C. to knock the ball around until Guy Roland Kpene hit a crossfield ball that Emilio controlled at full stretch. When he pulled it back, Marvell Wynne's late lunge uprooted his legs. Moreno's penalty earned the three points.

Soehn can tinker with personnel and formations as needed yet United's midfield pressure, defensive resiliency, and depth will determine its success. On Tuesday it learns its draw in the Copa Sudamericana, the SuperLiga beckons in July, and Saturday it hosts Houston, which has lost two in a row by shutout.

 



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