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United doomed if demons prevail
by Ridge Mahoney, November 1st, 2007 7AM

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[PLAYOFF PREVIEW] Halloween has come and gone, thus the curse must be broken. So go the hopes of D.C. United and its perplexed fans, who watched yet another playoff shutout inflicted by the Fire last Thursday, a 1-0 deficit that in normal circumstances scarcely would raise the blood pressure. D.C. scored 56 goals in the regular season and beat Chicago, 3-1, at RFK, June 16, so what's the problem? Repeat that result and all will be well.

EASTERN CONFERENCE SEMIFINAL, SECOND LEG
D.C. UNITED vs. CHICAGO (Fire leads, 1-0)
Thursday, 7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2)


Yet what D.C. does against Chicago in the regular season has no bearing on its postseason performances, which amount to five games without a win and an aggregate deficit of 11-0. And, that game preceded the arrivals of Coach Juan Carlos Osorio and Cuauhtemoc Blanco, and a remarkable transformation thereof.

Still, D.C. gets back Jaime Moreno and Luciano Emilio from injuries that knocked them out of the starting lineup for the first leg.

A trickier decision for Coach Tom Soehn is whether to use Bobby Boswell in central defense; Greg Vanney and Devon McTavish were victimized by several balls in wet, blustery conditions at Toyota Park, one of which fell for Chris Rolfe to rifle home the only goal. But Boswell has played little in the past month and this isn't the match to risk a player short on sharpness.

Gonzalo Segares blasted a long, diagonal ball upfield and Chad Barrett eradicated both central defenders by first shielding McTavish so he couldn't challenge for the ball, then outmuscling Vanney to nick it in Rolfe's direction.

A few minutes later another high ball - from a goal kick! -- completely cleared Vanney's leap for Blanco to hit a curling left-footed shot that keeper Troy Perkins pushed aside.

Temperate conditions are expected for the second leg and the boisterous United fans will give their team a lift. Yet that Fire curse still hangs overhead, and so too do memories of last year's Eastern Conference final, in which United fell behind early to New England and despite bombarding the Revs' net never caught up.

Without Moreno and Emilio in the first leg, Guy-Roland Kpene started the match alone up front. He prefers to set up teammates rather than lead the line himself, and while contributing some good touches lacked the cutting edge his team needed.

D.C. improved in the second half with Moreno replacing Kpene, yet it had chances during the initial period as well. But nobody even hit the target much less the net.

Kpene set up Christian Gomez in a good spot; Gomez shanked his shot. Olsen teed up an attempt from about the same location he scored twice during the regular season; this one he sliced well wide.

Olsen sent a great crossfield diagonal ball to Fred, who volleyed so errantly the ball hit Logan Pause, standing a few yards away stage right, and ricocheted out of play for a corner kick. Only if someone had shot so horribly that the ball went out for a throw-in could United's finishing have been any worse.

In the second half, Gomez drilled a free header right to Pickens. Gomez also squandered several free kicks, so it might be time for Moreno to hit a few dead balls.

The return of Moreno and Emilio, who came on in the 78th minute, should sharpen the shooting, yet their presence should also open up the Fire defense to produce not only more chances, but better ones. They won't be fully fit but are still the best options.

Wilman Conde has been playing a holding role in midfield but with a one-goal lead and all of United's attackers on the field, he will drop deeper and become a fourth defender, leaving Chris Armas to harass and close down opponents.

Diego Gutierrez played on the left side of midfield in the first leg; Osorio might slide him inside to buttress the middle, though the threat of Olsen on that flank will have to be dealt with.

Chicago has all the tools to complete the upset. Its defense has toughened up in the last two months of the season under the demanding regimen of Osorio.

Blanco and Rolfe and Calen Carr are dangerous on the counter, and Barrett is a handful. Armas is hunting balls in midfield as if retirement is far away.

Two years ago, United played a 0-0 tie in Chicago in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals, and rather cockily returned home to be stunned, 4-0. Last year, the Revs scored early and two hours later another hushed and humbled and angry crowd filed out of RFK.

It can't happen three years in a row, can it? Of course it can. But it won't.



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