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Is D.C. losing its winning identity?
by Ridge Mahoney, August 11th, 2008 4:15PM

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For more than a decade, D.C. United has prided itself on being the flagship of not only Major League Soccer, but of Latin-style soccer.

This is as much propagation as perception, as quite a few talented South American and Central American players have graced rosters other than that of D.C. Still, its marquee foreign signing in Year 1 was Marco Etcheverry, and it nabbed a young Jaime Moreno when his Middlesbrough stint had reached a crossroads. D.C. dominated the early years by reaching the first four MLS Cups played, and winning three of them.

In 2004, D.C. United - led by Moreno and Christian Gomez - won the team's fourth MLS Cup, and in the past three seasons has overhauled its roster to earn a return trip. Other teams have taken more successful routes.

Houston and New England reached the last two MLS Cups with a negligible Latin influence, and 2005 champion Los Angeles Galaxy had Guatemalan Guillermo Ramirez and Brazilian Paulo Nagamura and not much else.

The 2008 version of D.C., which is still dependent on a much less nimble Moreno, isn't keeping pace with several of its league rivals in regards to Latino quantity and quality. United is not only struggling to win, its mystique is fading.

Real Salt Lake lists a half-dozen South Americans (as well as two Scots, to be fair) on its roster, Chicago has not only Cuauhtemoc Blanco but Gonzalo Segares and Wilman Conde. And Claudio Lopez - while pricey - is no doubt a classy attacker who has brightened the Wizards' offense.

Sunday at the Meadowlands, United - and the rest of MLS - viewed a masterwork of how to craft a Latino influence within league parameters. The Red Bulls are by no means a great team, or even a very good one, yet in thrashing United, 4-1, Coach Juan Carlos Osorio showed how adding the right players can complement those already on hand, which is something D.C. - for all its scouting and hard work - has failed to do.

Osorio, knowing Jozy Altidore's MLS days were counting down, auditioned perhaps a half-dozen players to find the right partner for Juan Pablo Angel. None passed muster. In Jorge Rojas, Osorio has found an ideal forward to service Angel's talents of range, finishing and excellent heading skills. In three MLS games, Rojas already has three assists.

He's also flubbed several prime goalscoring chances, yet his influence has not only freed up Angel, it has given Dutch winger Dave van den Bergh a talented, experienced teammate to work with. After soldiering at left back when not marooned with scant support on the midfield flank, van den Bergh finally has sufficient options to fully exploit his dribbling, crossing and passing abilities.

Gabriel Cichero is a clear upgrade on the back line, which has been Osorio's major headache since he took over the team last winter. Young Mexican defender Diego Jimenez may not turn out to be a world-beater, but he's got speed and touch and a good left foot.

Once the retirement of Claudio Reyna had been negotiated, Osorio took license to fully integrate Juan Pietravallo as his midfield fulcrum. Pietravallo has bounced between clubs in his native Argentina, Spain and Greece, and he has several challengers for the starter's job, but if his tough, simple play knits the back line to the attack and tightens the middle, he'll see a lot of minutes.

And look at it this way: On Sunday, D.C. sent out midfielder Joe Vide, who'd been exposed by New York in the expansion draft, selected by San Jose, and then waived. United's Latino connection clicked, as Moreno scored on assists from Fred and Luciano Emilio to take a 1-0 lead, but Angel hit the net twice as New York racked up four straight.

Do the effects of Osorio's methods and philosophies extend beyond the Latino players he's imported? Maybe. In the 6-2 hammering inflicted by Barcelona prior to the D.C. match, midfield thumper Seth Stammler controlled a ball off his thigh and blasted it into the net. Granted, keeper Victor Valdez had failed to handle a van den Bergh cross, just getting his fingertips to it as it floated to the far post, but a good finish is a good finish. Stammler has scored four in 85 league games while playing in the back as well as midfield, so he's hardly an offensive juggernaut.

United may yet put its pieces together and gather momentum down the stretch, when Marcello Gallardo and Gonzalo Peralta return from sports hernia surgeries and its goalkeeping issues are addressed. New York and United are tied with 25 points, six points shy of a guaranteed playoff spot as the Eastern Conference third-place team. D.C. has 12 games to play, New York 11.

Yet in the nine months since he bolted Chicago for New York, Osorio has given more evidence that his turnaround of the Fire wasn't solely based on the arrival of Blanco.

Osorio cited his wife's wish to live closer to family and friends in New York as one reason for the change of employers. Red Bull fans should hope her extended family doesn't reach to Seattle (2009 expansion team) or Philadelphia (2010), as NYRB may have found the right man to utilize the league's liberalized policy on foreign players.

 



0 comments
  1. John Foust
    commented on: August 11, 2008 at 3:39 p.m.
    Let's remember one component of the DC United struggle this year: schedule. They have played 29 total games to New York's 22, and those additional games probably contributed to the numerous sports hernia and other injuries. Sports hernia is most frequently associated with overwork, as opposed to in-play contact. If DCU had full strength I believe several additional wins would have happened, and a strong finish is not out of the question, especially if Ben Olson returns. The team has some of the best staff in the MLS, coaching and trainers included, and I wouldn't be surprised to see them not only make the playoffs, but advance this year to at least the second round, if not further.

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