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D.C. United: Expecting an improvement

Editor's note: ESPNsoccernet will preview all 12 MLS teams as they prepare for the 2006 season.

2005 record and finish: 16-10-6, second in Eastern Conference

Key additions: Justin Moose, Rod Dyachenko

Key losses: Dema Kovalenko

Key questions facing the team:

1. Can D.C. be better with the same roster?

When the Chicago Fire dismantled D.C. United 4-0 in the second game of last year's first-round Eastern Conference series, some believed that D.C. would face a roster overhaul. Not only was there not a roster shakeup, D.C. returned 15 of the 16 players who played the most minutes for the team last year.

So why will D.C. have different results? Two Argentines, Facundo Erpen and Lucio Filomeno, are the key. Both were late arrivals in 2005, with Erpen settling in as a starter while Filomeno struggled with injuries. Heading into the season, both are set to start and play key roles.

Erpen is just 22 but he has the size and skill to be one of the best defenders in MLS. His versatility gives D.C. coach Peter Nowak the ability to play both three-man and four-man defenses. The question is whether he can find the consistency that eluded him last year.

2. Is D.C. tough enough?

As difficult as it is to imagine a Peter Nowak-coached squad could ever be considered a finesse team, D.C. just might fit that bill. The departures of Earnie Stewart, Ryan Nelsen, Mike Petke and, most recently, Dema Kovalenko, have left the club without any players who could be considered enforcers. Soccer isn't hockey, but in a league where physical play can go overboard depending on the referee, it helps to have some tough guys on your squad.

D.C. felt that void in last year's playoff loss to Chicago and the four-time champions can expect opponents to test them by trying to wear down skill players Jaime Moreno, Christian Gomez and Freddy Adu. It isn't so much that D.C. doesn't have any tough players, but two of its most fiery are Moreno and Gomez, two players the team can't afford to lose to cards. What can D.C. do to counterattack the hacking? Not much. The team must rely on MLS officials to keep games honest and keep opponents from employing thug tactics.

3. Who will be the goalkeeper?

One of the players blamed for last year's disappointment was goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who made his share of awful mistakes, leaving his future with D.C. in question. Enter Troy Perkins, the same goalkeeper who played so well in Rimando's absence in 2004. Perkins is a 6-foot-2 shot stopper who boasts solid positioning and consistency. He figured to challenge Rimando for the starting role even before Rimando went down with torn ligaments in his left foot. Now he will have his chance to take a solid grip of the position. Why Perkins over Rimando? Perkins is bigger, younger, less expensive and more reliable. If he makes the most of his early-season opportunity, Perkins could hang on to the job for years to come.

4. Can Alecko Eskandarian regain his old form?

After nearly having his career ended by concussions, Eskandarian has been cleared to return to action. D.C. is treating the comeback carefully but they definitely need him back on the field. Filomeno is an unproven commodity in MLS, Jamil Walker is better suited as a reserve and Santino Quaranta is just returning after missing most of the preseason with a hamstring injury.

Eskandarian has recovered from groin surgery in early March and played in the team's recent Carolina Cup appearance. He will probably spend the first month of the season being worked back into action, so we may not know until May or June if Eskandarian is truly capable of regaining his MLS Cup MVP form.

Biggest X-factor: Freddy Adu. Adu's third year as a professional could be the breakout season many have been waiting for since he signed with Major League Soccer. The departure of Kovalenko frees up a lineup spot for Adu on the left flank, and with the war of words with Nowak apparently behind him, Adu is poised to build on last year's modest success. Word out of D.C. camp is that Adu has come back from U.S. national team camp a more poised player with a better feel for the game. He has improved his understanding of defensive responsibilities and the team concept, which should make Nowak more comfortable with giving him more minutes in 2006.

How good can Adu be this year? He already caused fits for opposing defenses last season and more minutes will mean more scoring opportunities. Don't be surprised if Adu posts a double-digit assist total this year. Another player to watch for is Bobby Boswell, one of last year's most surprising revelations. He has struggled at times this preseason but D.C. is confident he has improved enough to man the center back spot in a three-man position as well as form a solid central defender tandem with Erpen in a four-man back line.

Breakout Player to Watch: Filomeno

Injuries prevented Filomeno from truly showing the form that made D.C. sign him from Korean club Busan last September, but this preseason he has shown flashes of being an effective striker alongside Moreno.

A true goal poacher, Filomeno should thrive in a D.C. attack that creates chances in bunches. His style is ideally suited to playing with Moreno and Gomez and he could be a 10-goal scorer if he holds off Eskandarian for the starting forward role.

Another player to watch for is rookie Justin Moose. The speedy winger has impressed D.C. coaches with his fearlessness and willingness to take on defenders. Some are concerned with his lack of size but Moose has shown a penchant for making hard challenges as well as delivering quality service. He should thrive in a super-sub role.

Eric Wynalda's Take:
"D.C. United look pretty good. They've kind of abolished all of the problems they had with Freddy Adu, and I think that's going to be a big improvement. Let's face it, he's not going to the World Cup. With the players gone for the World Cup, I think he has a good chance to make a difference. Jaime Moreno is, as always, the key to that team. How he plays and how he comes out of preseason sets the tone. I expect this team to finish the season in the middle of the pack, and then make a playoff run"

Outlook: D.C. had the look of a champion heading into last year's playoffs before the Chicago Fire destroyed the four-time champs. Now D.C. heads into the year as the third-best team in the Eastern Conference until it proves otherwise.

New England is the favorite, and Chicago's whipping of D.C. is still too fresh in the memory to not rank the Fire No. 2. Injuries to Brian Namoff, Quaranta and Rimando have slowed the team's preseason preparations, but D.C. has the experience and talent to remain a title contender.

D.C. needs defenders Erpen and Boswell to thrive, Eskandarian to regain his 2004 form and Adu to take the next step in his growth as a player. Moreno is still one of the league's best and the central midfield trio of Gomez, Ben Olsen and Brian Carroll will help the team compete regardless of what happens with the forwards this year. Look for D.C. to challenge New England for the East all season long, and if either Filomeno or Eskandarian becomes a dangerous scorer, D.C. United could return to the MLS Cup.

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPN.com and is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.). He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.