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May 9, 2008

Questions abound for struggling D.C. squad

As Jaime Moreno and his D.C. United teammates walked back onto the field at halftime of Thursday night's match against the Fire you could see him sneak a glimpse at a pair of former D.C. teammates who were taking part in a halftime ceremony. John Harkes and Marco Etcheverry were pillars of D.C. United's early success in Major League Soccer and Moreno, the only remaining link to that glorious past, must have been wishing he could hop into a time machine and go back about a dozen years.

D.C. United's early-season struggles continued on Thursday with a 2-0 loss to the Chicago Fire that left even more questions for a disjointed D.C. squad. Is Luciano Emilio simply in a funk or did he play way over his head last season? Is Franco Niell simply not cut out to make an impact in the fast and physical MLS? Is Clyde Simms capable of handling the considerable demands of the defensive midfield role? Is coach Tom Soehn's job in jeopardy? Was it a bad idea to bring in so many new players at once?

All these questions were flying around after United's latest poor performance. Yes, Marcelo Gallardo, Fred and Devon McTavish were out on Thursday, and D.C. did play well for the first 30 minutes of the match, but D.C. has struggled no matter who has been in the lineup and the result is a 2-5 record and a firm hold on last place in the much-improved Eastern Conference.

So what exactly is wrong? Where do you begin? On Thursday night it was as much a collective effort of lackluster effort and a lack of attacking ideas as it was the fault of any one player. With the exception of Moreno, who squeezed every ounce of skill, touch and creativity he could muster out of his battered 34-year-old body, and goalkeeper Zach Wells, who kept the scoreline from getting truly ugly with some breathtaking second-half saves, the blame for the team's fifth loss was shared by many.

That much was clear to see by the D.C. officials as they watched video of the match just minutes after the end of the game. Tucked away in the bowels of RFK Stadium, president Kevin Payne and Soehn watched with disgust as players took plays off and shut down in key moments against a Chicago team that showed more energy and determination throughout the night.

"There's definitely something missing and we, as players, have to figure out what it is," Moreno said. "Coaches and staff can't do anything about it. It's something the players have to figure out."

"We have a personal accountability issue on the field," Payne told the Washington Post. "I hope that the players know; some of them probably don't, actually. There are certain players who play maybe 75 or 80 minutes out of 90, but they take off critical plays, and it happened tonight twice.

"We've got guys who think it is okay if you go out and put a good effort in for 30-35 minutes," Payne said. "The crowd cheers, everybody gets happy and then you fall asleep for a play and bang, you are down a goal."

D.C. needed only to look across the field at Chicago to see a team playing as a collective, defending as a group, making runs for each other and receiving special plays from its special players.

While Blanco sealed the game with an inspired left-footed chip shot, Emilio was a non-factor yet again. He has looked nothing like the dominant forward who led MLS in scoring in 2007 and has managed just one goal in seven matches, He didn't show many signs on Thursday of breaking out of his slump any time soon.

Thursday's loss was made even more troubling by the memories of what D.C. endured just a week earlier, when D.C. castoffs Christian Gomez and Facundo Erpen helped Colorado post a 2-0 victory. The performance of Gomez was especially troubling. Gomez thoroughly outplayed the man who replaced him, Argentine playmaker Marcelo Gallardo.

There is no doubting that Gallardo has skill, and can create moments of brilliance, but you can argue that Gomez's ability to create chances for himself as well as others, coupled with his knowledge of the league, makes a strong case for the argument that D.C. is paying more for a player who isn't as good.

Perhaps even more detrimental to the D.C. efforts than Emilio's poor early form or Christian Gomez's departure is the absence of midfielder Ben Olsen, whose skill, bite, energy and relentless approach to the game had long been the most underrated factor in D.C. United's success in recent years. With his ankle injuries leaving Olsen's return in serious doubt, D.C. could be faced with the prospects of trying to replace a player whose intangibles won't be easy to find on the foreign market for a reasonable price.

D.C. may have no other choice. Despite the club's lengthy list of offseason acquisitions, D.C. United may still be a few moves away from avoiding having 2008 become the most disappointing season in club history.

"We made changes in the offseason because we were not happy and, if we have to, we will certainly make changes again," Payne said.

Are more changes the answer? It could be argued that the player turnover of the past few years has led to the construction of talented but disjointed squad that boasts none of the continuity or cohesion of the title-winning D.C. teams of years past. Unfortunately for Payne, Soehn, Moreno and D.C. United, more changes look inevitable because the current team isn't good enough and the title-winning teams and players of year's past are not coming back.

Game previews

After last week's boring slate of games, which included two scoreless draws, this week's schedule should offer some potential shootouts and more goals than last week's total of 12 in six games.

Houston will be looking a win after failing on seven different occasions to record that first victory. San Jose has a goal this year, two to be exact, but will look to avoid being shut out for the fifth time in six games.

Saturday

Colorado Rapids at Houston Dynamo

The Rapids should be riding high after last week's emotional win against D.C., but look for the letdown against a Houston team that is due for a win after playing so well in recent weeks. This has the makings of a surprise blowout as the champs finally wake up. Dynamo 3, Rapids 0.

FC Dallas at Real Salt Lake

FC Dallas hasn't scored in two matches while Real Salt Lake has given up six goals in its past two matches? Sounds like a good win for the Hoops right? Wrong. Real Salt Lake will be fired up and should create chances against an FC Dallas team that has actually played well defensively in recent weeks. Real Salt Lake 1, FC Dallas 0.

Columbus Crew at San Jose Earthquakes

What can you expect when the hottest team in MLS takes on a club that has only scored in one of its five matches? You should get a blowout. Well, San Jose's defense is good enough to keep things close, but Columbus is just playing too well to be slowed by San Jose. Crew 2, Earthquakes 0.

New York Red Bulls at Los Angeles Galaxy

This match had the makings of a wide-open affair with both teams capable of taking the three points, but a rash of injuries as the Red Bulls heading into this match at a major disadvantage. While Jozy Altidore and Juan Pablo Angel could feast on Abel Xavier, the absence of Claudio Reyna and Seth Stammler will be too much to overcome as David Beckham has another monster game. Galaxy 2, Red Bulls 1.

Sunday

New England Revolution at Chivas USA

The Revs might be looking forward to a road game after being beaten and held scoreless at Gillette Stadium for the second straight time last week. They will go up against a Chivas team that finally saw the real Brad Guzan last week. That Chivas USA attack has yet to show though, so look for New England to rebound with a road win. Revolution 2, Chivas USA 1

Last Week: 2-1-3

Overall: 17-11-7

Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives and can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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