- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005

CARSON, Calif. — D.C. United’s season opener today represents an exercise in deja vu.

United enters the season as Major League Soccer’s defending champion, a status the club enjoyed in three of its first four seasons.

Also, the nationally televised opener against Club Deportivo Chivas USA will be played at Home Depot Center, where United won MLS Cup 2004.

“It feels like MLS Cup, to be honest,” defender Mike Petke said. “We’re staying at the same hotel. It was the last taste that was left in our mouths.”

The similarities between both contests don’t end there.

“This is a big game,” Petke said. “I know it’s a big game for Chivas, and it’s definitely a big game for us. We’re excited to get it started.”

Chivas USA, one of two MLS expansion teams, is the first major entry into American professional sports by a foreign owner: Mexico’s Jorge Vergara, who also owns CD Guadalajara, Chivas’ parent club in Mexico, and Costa Rica’s Saprissa.

Coaching Chivas USA is Thomas Rongen, who guided United to the MLS Cup championship in 1999. Former United defender Ezra Hendrickson starts as right back. Midfielder Ramon Ramirez, who played in two World Cups for Mexico, is the captain.

As United prepares, the club faces a significant question for the second consecutive season. Last year, it concerned the performance of teenager Freddy Adu. This year, it is unknown how United will survive without defender Ryan Nelsen, the team’s captain and on-field organizer who signed with England’s Blackburn Rovers in January.

“We can’t replace Ryan Nelsen,” United coach Peter Nowak said. “It’s not like we’re saying, ‘Look, Ryan Nelsen is up this tree, and we’re going to shake it.’”

Petke and rookie Bobby Boswell have shared time at Nelsen’s old spot in the middle of United’s backline. Midfielder Clyde Simms also might play there, and the club has not discounted overseas help.

“It took six months to get another piece to make our team,” Nowak said of the club’s efforts to acquire midfielder Christian Gomez, “and we’re going to look all over the place to make sure we’ve got the right piece.”

Boswell could be that piece.

“It’s very difficult nowadays for a rookie to step into an important role like that,” Petke said. “But he’s a good player.

“He’s a good one-on-one defender; he’s very physical, and he’s very athletic. He puts himself in good positions, and he listens to the veterans and the coaches, which is a huge thing.”

Meanwhile, Nowak refuses to fret.

“Last year, Bobby Convey left, and everybody was saying, ‘We don’t have Bobby Convey. We don’t have this, we don’t have that,’” Nowak said. “But it’s 11 players on the field who make a difference.

“One player cannot win the game. You’ve seen the L.A. Lakers. Kobe Bryant can’t win the game by himself.”

One player who could make an immediate difference is English midfielder Steve Guppy, a 16-year veteran of British soccer who replaces Earnie Stewart.

On the same day United announced his signing, Guppy sent a fierce cross from the left wing that Jamil Walker converted for a goal in a 2-1 victory over Jamaica’s Harbour View in the CONCACAF Champions Cup.

“I told him that I think we’re going to be best friends the way he swings balls in,” forward Alecko Eskandarian said.

Eskandarian, whose 10 goals fell two shy of the league lead last year, leads a strike force that includes Gomez, Jaime Moreno and a heavier Adu, who gained 15 pounds through a weightlifting program.

Guppy and Josh Gros should complete a midfield that will miss Dema Kovalenko, who was suspended for the season opener after receiving a red card in last year’s MLS Cup.

Regardless of who plays where, last season’s success generated a sense of confidence that United had not seen since its early years of glory.

“It was a huge shot in the arm,” Ben Olsen said of winning the MLS Cup. “It’s beautiful because a lot of us probably doubted it midway through the season. All of a sudden, we started gelling.

“But you’ve got to be careful to walk that thin line and make sure that you do not get too confident. We did that in 2000 after winning the ‘99 championship and look where it got us: last place. People will be gunning for us.”

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