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Mar 2, 2009

D.C. looks to bounce back from miserable 2008

Editor's note: This is the eighth of 15 MLS team previews by ESPNsoccernet for the 2009 season. Seattle will be previewed on Wednesday.

2008 record and finish: 11-15-4, sixth in East, missed playoffs.

Key additions: M Christian Gomez, M Rodney Wallace

Key losses: M Marcelo Gallardo, D Gonzalo Martinez, D Gonzalo Peralta, GK Zach Wells, M Ivan Guerrero, M Joe Vide

Key questions facing team:

1. Are recent struggles linked to injury or otherwise?

It was sometimes perplexing to watch United flounder so in 2008. The defensive instability was surely toxic. Otherwise, however, the team seemed talented enough -- but not always capable of equaling the sum of its parts.

Have injuries been the culprit? Two years ago, both starting forwards were injured as United, having claimed the Supporters Shield for best overall record, crash landed in a first-round playoff heap. And injuries to key attackers similarly dragged down this past year's effort, which resulted in United missing the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

Dealing with injuries is part of the deal, of course. And while sprains, strains and otherwise surely cracked the attack, injury woes can't be blamed for allowing 51 goals, second worst in MLS, behind only the outrageously discombobulated Galaxy.

MLS Primetime
March 19
Seattle vs. New York
Qwest Field, Seattle
9 p.m. ET, (ESPN2)

2. Can a change in the preseason routine make all the difference?

For two years United missed the luxury of easing into preseason training. They couldn't work on fitness initially and then begin fine-tuning offensive and defensive principles. Instead the club needed to ramp up immediately for action in the CONCACAF Champions Cup -- a tournament so important that it no longer exists. This year Tom Soehn can manage the preseason in a more standard fashion, building deliberately toward the March 22 opener. He says the difference is "night and day."

"What ends up happening is that have to focus on the first 14 guys [on the roster]," Soehn said of the previous years. "I still feel sorry for Houston, having to do that this year. I've yet to see a team have to do that and then start well in MLS. I haven't figured out how to do it, and I don't think anyone else has either."

3. Can the defense improve?

The "Brothers Gonzalo" are gone; Gonzalo Martinez and Gonzalo Peralta have been written off as failed experiments of 2008. Bryan Namoff looks solid at right back. Marc Burch has a bright future, perhaps at left back, if he can regain his 2007 form.

Can Greg Janicki be part of the answer? He looked promising late in '08 on loan from USL's Pittsburgh -- but performance under the burden of expectation can sometimes be tougher. Devon McTavish will get his shot to claim a central spot during the preseason. Youngsters Kyle Veris and Rodney Wallace are around to challenge for spots in the back as well.

Louis Crayton, who arrived at RFK late last summer, represents enhanced stability in goal. As for his adventurous, sometimes heart-stopping ways in 2008: "The defense in front of him should be better this year," Soehn said. "So he won't need to come to the rescue as often."

Biggest X Factor: Christian Gomez

After a miserable year in Colorado, the little Argentine creator is back at RFK, where his breakout MVP year in 2006 was supported by 14 goals and 11 assists. United players and officials say he's resettled nicely. There were never any hard feelings on either side, they say, as this past year's trade was all about salary cap management.

They'll need something special once again from Gomez to challenge for hardware. Everybody at United knows what they'll get from the graceful Jaime Moreno, who can still be effective, although perhaps in shorter bursts in his 14th MLS season. And they know Luciano Emilio can score, of course, as his prodigious 31 goals in 56 appearances over the past two years indicate.

So Gomez's ability to apply even more pressure on defenses could mean the difference between mediocrity and achievement at RFK.

Breakout Player to Watch: Marc Burch

Burch was a revelation as he stepped into the left back spot at RFK in July of 2007 and refused to be dislodged. But he went a bit wobbly in 2008, perhaps due in part to general instability across the back line. Center backs came and went, none any more adept than any other. So perhaps the infection crept over to the left back spot, which devolved into a rotation of similar ineffectiveness.

Now Burch will try to reclaim the solid footing of a year earlier. He's got lots of raw ability, a terrific left foot and a healthy desire to get forward. Plus, he's a dandy dead ball striker.

John Harkes' Take:
"Well D.C. for me is the biggest story that's out there other than L.A. -- you know those two open up against each other on March 22, it's a Sunday, and you got Bruce Arena coaching L.A. going against his old club from a few years ago. But D.C. have a lot to prove to their fans this year. This past season they made some horrible decisions on personnel on the field. They changed way too quickly, too many players in and out of the system. They let go of Christian Gomez the year before and now he's back and they shouldn't have let him go in the first place. So this is a player that knows what it's like to play for D.C. and compete for titles and wear the jersey. Last year D.C. was unrecognizable because it seemed like 11 individual players playing on the field, and no one taking a leadership role or a responsibility to defend when they needed to. So I think now they've learned their lessons from Gallardo -- that was their first DP they went for and it didn't work out although I think it was kind of an emergency signing because they couldn't get Juan Sebastian Veron."

Outlook

It's already a big year at United, with hopeful and long overdue movement on the team's protracted stadium efforts. Now, if they can just sort out the on-field part.

Soehn dodged the ax after this past year's failure to reach the postseason. Anything similar in 2009 will surely bring managerial change, and perhaps even upheaval at the general manager's post since some of Dave Kasper's moves have gone undeniably sideways.

The quickest path to recovery would be to correct abhorrent road performance; the club was a league-worst 2-11-2 in 2008 with a scant 11 goals and a stunning minus-21 goal difference away from RFK.

With Fred and with Santino Quaranta -- whose career resurrection was one of the feel-good stories of 2008 -- set to man the wings, and with durable and serviceable Clyde Simms at the holding spot, the midfield looks stable. Moreno, Emilio and Gomez form a terrific attacking triangle.

Ben Olsen's ability to get something out of those chronically troublesome ankles may weigh into the success or failure factor. Insiders say the locker room chemistry wasn't bad this past year, but wasn't as lock-step tight as years past, and a bigger presence from Olsen could sway the balance. The trick is, it's hard to be a bigger presence when you're not ever on the field.

Mostly though, it's all about finding those center backs. A proud franchise's season may depend on it.

Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.

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