When the 2008 MLS season opened a little over a month ago, D.C. United was on everybody's short list of MLS Cup contenders. The side had the league's best record in 2007 and had added some considerable talent. But six games into the current campaign, United looks more like a team that will struggle to make the playoffs. They are currently propping up the Eastern Conference table, and the decision to retool their roster has yet to pay off.
The Black-and-Red will try to get well on this week's edition of "MLS Primetime Thursday" (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2), but their task is demanding. Their opponents, the Chicago Fire, not only possess the league's second-best record, but they've enjoyed some considerable success against United in recent years. Chicago has knocked D.C. out of the playoffs in two of the past three seasons, both times at RFK Stadium.
Five story lines to follow
1. Old comrades square off
From 1998 until 2003, Chicago manager Denis Hamlett and United counterpart Tom Soehn were brothers-in-arms. Hamlett was a Fire assistant during that time, while Soehn was both a player and an assistant coach in the Windy City. Now they find themselves on opposite sides. While Soehn tried to downplay the confrontation, the familiarity between the two has Hamlett wary of United, despite their recent struggles.
"[United] is still a very good team," said Hamlett. "We've seen at times, when they're on, how dangerous they can be because of the types of players they have. We're expecting a difficult game."
2. United's split personality
Soehn probably wishes he shared Hamlett's optimism. The Black-and-Red's indifferent display this past weekend in a 2-0 loss at Colorado still had Soehn seething 24 hours later. Not even the team's pending announcement of a $14 million sponsorship deal with Volkswagen had improved his mood. His exasperation stems in part from the team's poor road form, which is in sharp contrast to D.C.'s strong efforts at home.
"I'm just disappointed in the passion we're showing," said Soehn. "We've had it at times throughout the year, but we're turning it on and off, and you just can't afford to do that."
Soehn isn't assuming that some home cooking will automatically solve his team's problems either. In addition to the Fire's playoff success at RFK, they currently sport the best road record in the league with a 2-0-1 mark.
3. Chicago weathers the storm
|MLS Primetime Thursday|
Chicago at D.C.
7:30 p.m. ET (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes, ESPN360)
Given the tumultuous offseason that saw the Fire lose manager Juan Carlos Osorio to New York, captain Chris Armas to retirement and goalkeeper Matt Pickens to Europe, one might have expected Chicago to struggle early on. But even amid this upheaval, some continuity remained. Hamlett had been a Fire assistant for 10 years, while assistant coaches Armas and Mike Jeffries as well as technical director Frank Klopas all had long-standing ties to the organization. The team's record of 4-1-1 speaks to how well the various obstacles have been handled.
"It has been different people and different voices in new roles, but it has still been the same message as far as what we are trying to accomplish as a club," said Hamlett. "It has made for an easier transition."
4. United search for an Olsen twin
One of the biggest blows that United has suffered this season has been the long-term absence of midfielder Ben Olsen. The 10-year veteran underwent surgery on both ankles in the offseason, and while the right has healed well, the left has not, leaving him contemplating retirement. As a result, the grit and midfield bite that Olsen provided in the past have been in short supply, leaving Soehn hoping that other players will pick up the slack.
"I've always said from the beginning that Benny is a big loss for us, both in the locker room and on the field," said Soehn. "Unfortunately, life goes on, and we can't keep going back to that card. We have to find different ways of generating that kind of intensity."
5. Divergent defenses
The contrasting fortunes of the two sides can be traced directly to the performance of their respective defenses. With just three goals conceded in six games, Chicago is the league leader in that category. United meanwhile has been positively sieve-like, allowing 12 goals in six matches, a mark that is third-worst in MLS.
"To be a good team in this league, you have to win games on the road and keep teams from scoring," said Soehn. "Right now, we're not able to do that, so we have to continue to push buttons and make sure that we're tighter and harder to play against."
Five players to watch
1. John Thorrington, M, Chicago
There was a time when Thorrington was among the brightest American prospects. In 1997, he was signed by Manchester United, and later joined Landon Donovan at Bayer Leverkusen. But every time Thorrington's career gained some momentum, the injury bug struck, and this trend continued when he returned Stateside in 2005. Now Thorrington is healthy again, and his three goals in his past two games have given the Fire another potent attacking option out of midfield.
"Thorrington is on cloud nine right now," said Hamlett. "He's enjoying the moment because getting to this point was so difficult with all of the injuries."
2. Luciano Emilio, F, D.C. United
Emilio's struggle to regain last season's MVP form was highlighted three weeks ago in the run-up to United's last "Primetime Thursday" appearance. Although Soehn indicated that the Brazilian has made some progress, the United forward still looks short of his best. Not only has his finishing touch disappeared, but his hold-up play and passing have been subpar, too.
3. Jon Busch, G, Chicago
|Sign up now for the free MLS fantasy game
The early candidates for Comeback Player of the Year look to be Thorrington and his teammate, Busch. The Fire goalkeeper was a mainstay for years in Columbus before a succession of knee injuries saw the Crew cut him loose. But a 2007 season spent serving as the Fire's backup allowed Busch to regain his form. And after Pickens bolted for Europe, Busch took over the starting spot, and he leads the league in goals-against average, saves and save percentage.
"Busch has shown that he's one of the best goalkeepers in the league because he's consistent," said Hamlett. "He makes the plays he's supposed to make."
4. Clyde Simms, M, D.C. United
Simms' range and tackling have long made him the heir apparent to Olsen in the United midfield. Yet like most of his teammates this year, Simms' performances have been inconsistent. If D.C. is to hand Chicago their second loss of the season, Simms will need to do the defensive dirty work and free up Marcelo Gallardo to orchestrate the attack.
5. Cuauhtémoc Blanco, M, Chicago
Blanco's numbers have cooled a bit in recent weeks, but not his influence. Even as teams try to deny him space, the former Mexican international hasn't forced the issue, retreating a bit deeper into midfield and allowing players like Thorrington and Chris Rolfe to inflict damage.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes for Centerlinesoccer.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.