- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2000

The mighty have fallen.

D.C. United, the most successful team in the five-year history of Major League Soccer, suddenly finds itself with the league's worst record and in the cellar of MLS's weakest division.

Defending champion United dropped to 1-4 after a 3-2 overtime loss to the New York/New Jersey MetroStars on Saturday, but it may have its own success to blame. United, which won three titles in MLS's first four seasons, continuously loses members of its star-studded lineup who are called away for national team duty.

Coach Thomas Rongen has used a different starting lineup in each of United's five games, compensating for national team commitments, injuries and suspensions.

"If you think you sunk as low as you can and can't go any deeper, but obviously we've reached a very critical point right now," Rongen said. "For this club to be in the position that we're in, regardless of missing players and not having our best players out there, is unacceptable."

The list of key players who have missed games is long:

• Midfielder Marco Etcheverry, named the league's most valuable player in 1998, missed United's second game after getting a red card in the opener.

• Leading scorer Jaime Moreno (three goals) missed Saturday's game to play for Bolivia in a World Cup qualifier. It's not known whether Moreno will play for United on Saturday in San Jose.

• Midfielder Ben Olsen, forward Chris Albright and rookie defender Eric Denton each missed United's last two games because of U.S. Olympic team commitments. All three will miss Saturday's game at San Jose and return for United's next home game, May 3 against the Columbus Crew.

• Starting right back Carey Talley sat out two games because of a severe bruise on his right foot.

• Star defender Eddie Pope missed Saturday's game after undergoing successful arthroscopic surgery on his left knee. Pope, a mainstay of the U.S. national team, will miss at least another four games, and maybe more, rehabilitating from surgery.

• Starting central defender Carlos Llamosa sat out United's lone win, over the Chicago Fire on April 8, with a sore groin and a bout with the flu.

• Reserve right back Judah Cooks was suspended for last Saturday's game because of a red card received the game before against New England.

Opponents have noticed.

"You have to understand that some of the most important players on this team are not with the team," MetroStars coach Octavio Zambrano said. "I know for us, if we are missing one or two players, it's an incredible difference. For D.C. to be missing three or four players, obviously it's going to make a tremendous difference. It's kind of a result of being so good that all of these players are on national teams. It depletes a team."

In three of four losses, United has allowed the first goal in the game's first 15 minutes. And, a second goal scorer to complement Moreno hasn't emerged. On the season, United has only scored eight goals, and only three have come from United's strikers.

United knew this would be a difficult season because of Olympic and World Cup qualifying. In the past, United was able to overcome the absences of key starters with stellar play from reserves.

In United's inaugural season in 1996, the club lost six of its first seven games but went on to win the MLS Cup.

And, United says it will be there at the end again.

"In the past, we've had guys who would bail the others out," United forward A.J. Wood said after Saturday's game. "I had a chance early in the game that hit off the post [but] it hit me on the inside of the thigh. Nine times out of 10 it goes straight. I don't know why it didn't go in the goal. We gave up three really soft goals. It's everybody's fault."

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