- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 28, 2000

In less than a year, D.C. United has gone from being Major League Soccer's champion to an easy target of abuse.

On various Web sites, United fans are viciously attacking the organization, particularly coach Thomas Rongen, with a barrage of insults on bulletin boards and in chat rooms.

Another example of United's fall from grace is that a banner depicting the Celtic cross hung behind RFK Stadium's north goal is being called a racist symbol associated with the white supremacist group Aryan Nation, even though it is being hung by a black fan.

That's what a 4-10-4 start can do to a club.

Nobody in the organization players, coaches, and front office personnel expected this radical a dropoff. United has gone from having the best record in MLS to the worst seemingly overnight.

United won its third MLS Cup on Nov. 21 at Foxboro Stadium. Four months later, the proud club opened its fifth season, and promptly lost nine of its first 12 games.

"I'm not going to answer that because I think they are all ultimately excuses," Rongen said when asked what he thought happened through the first 18 games. "That's not what I'm about. I'm disappointed with the way we started."

So, where is the club at right now? United has 14 games left, including tonight's game against the Los Angeles Galaxy (7-4-7) at RFK, to right their listing ship and make the playoffs.

United has dug itself a huge hole, but there are slight signs of recovery. In United's last seven games, including a U.S. Open Cup game against the A-League's Charleston (S.C.) Battery, the club has gone 3-1-3.

"It's not a hole we can't climb back out of," United president Kevin Payne said. "If we put a winning streak together, we are right back in it. There are a lot of nuts out there who think the answer to everything is to fire the coach. I don't believe that the problems this year are because of coaching. I think Thomas has done the same kind of job he did last year when we led the league in points."

United's players, especially those who have been with the club since the inaugural season in 1996, believe the league is punishing United yearly for its success. The players point to the forced departures over the years of stars Roy Lassiter, Diego Sonora, Tony Sanneh, John Harkes, Raul Diaz Arce and Ben Iroha because of salary cap reasons as proof.

Until this season, United was able to overcome key losses by integrating quality young players such as Ben Olsen into the starting lineup. This season, United's younger players haven't really asserted themselves as they have in years past.

"Again, this is the fourth year in a row we lost key people," defender Jeff Agoos said.

"You can't keep losing key people year after year and expect continued success. Look at the clubs in Europe; look at Manchester United. Every year they get better and better because they add players, they don't subtract players and we've had to do that."

The loss of Lassiter haunted United for the first half of the season. Last season Lassiter scored 18 goals and finished the season in a three-way tie for the league's goal-scoring title with Stern John of Columbus and Jason Kreis of Dallas.

United's inability to score goals from its other forward spot besides Jaime Moreno forced the team to reacquire Diaz Arce from the Tampa Bay Mutiny in a May 26 trade.

"Our [bad] start was a combination of losing players," defender Eddie Pope said. "You take the leading scorer in the league out from our team and it's going to affect a lot. I think it throws the whole balance of the team off. You are not getting the amount of goals you are used to getting. It affects you defensively and it affects the whole morale of the team. That was a pretty big loss for us."

Bad luck also has contributed to United's miserable season. United has allowed 36 goals and 19 of those have come from free kicks, penalty kicks, corner kicks and own goals. Subsequently, seven of United's 10 losses have been by one goal.

"Last year we gave up one set-piece play, this year almost every goal was off of a set-piece," Pope said. "It's difficult when you are not giving up goals out of the run of play and giving up goals on set-pieces. It's a really strange thing. I don't think it's happened to anybody that many set-pieces."

However, it's not too late for United to salvage this season, although it will take a significant winning streak. The team record for consecutive wins is 12 from July 2 to Aug. 26, 1998 and that streak included three wins in the CONCACAF Champions Cup. Last season, United rolled off 11 straight from Aug. 8 to Sept. 29 with one Champions Cup win. Three other times, United has posted seven-game winning streaks.

In order for United to win back-to-back games tonight for the first time this season, the club is going to have to do it without four of its stars. Bolivian World Cup qualifying duty claimed Moreno and playmaker Marco Etcheverry, and injuries to midfielder Olsen (ankle) and defender Carlos Llamosa (knee) leaves United considerably shorthanded.

"I think we can turn this around," Rongen said. "This is a curve that is going to happen at times when you are on the top. When you are successful for such a long period of time, you need to learn how it feels to lose again. We were very confident going into the season, maybe in retrospect, too confident."

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