- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

On paper it looked like D.C. United had a good year. The club won more regular-season games (16) than in its championship years of 1996 and 2004, and scored a ton of goals (58). However, United failed to win the big games in all four tournaments it played in, which raises questions about leadership. United certainly had one of its deepest rosters and often played attractive soccer, but the team lacked a real leader on the field, someone who could rally the team in vital moments.

Losing 5-0 to Pumas in Mexico in the CONCACAF Cup; surrendering a late goal to FC Dallas in the U.S. Open Cup; blowing a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2 in Chile in the Copa Sudamericana; and getting drubbed 4-0 by the Chicago Fire on Sunday in the MLS playoffs reflected the team’s failure to play smart soccer when it needed to.

“If you cannot find a leader on the field you have to have a leader on the bench,” frustrated coach Peter Nowak after the Fire game.

The coach picks the team and can only do so much from the sideline. Soccer is a player’s game and United clearly needs a “guts and glory” captain, a passionate leader who has the wisdom to know when stylish soccer must give way to smart soccer, which while not always pretty, may produce the result.

Last season the club had Ryan Nelsen, and in the past, players like Mike Petke, Earnie Stewart, Richie Williams, John Harkes and Jeff Agoos were vocal and wise leaders.

Current team captain Jaime Moreno, who had a fine season with 16 goals, understands the game but doesn’t wear his passion on his sleeve.

After a quick glance at United’s likely starters, only two candidates could inherit the captain’s role: Ben Olsen and Dema Kovalenko.

Olsen, a veteran and tireless worker, is an obvious choice if he maintains his form. As for Kovalenko, many will roll their eyes at the mention of the highly temperamental player who has left a few players in the hospital in the past with his wild tackles. But the passionate and fiery Ukrainian has matured in recent years. Sometimes an added responsibility can transform a player. Manchester United captain Roy Keane is notoriously hot-tempered with a history of bad tackles and red cards, but he is well-known as a fine leader on the field.

Whether Olsen and Kovalenko, both among the team’s highest-paid players, are on the roster when the salary cap issue comes up, remains to be seen.

Meantime, after a few tough weeks the future looks good for United. The roster is deep with a strong reserve team. Next season, Alecko Eskandarian will be back along with newcomer Lucio Filomeno, who will add muscle to the front line.

United has no shortage of talent in the midfield but could use help in the back. After his poor performance on Sunday, there will be questions about goalie Nick Rimando. It’s likely that backup keeper Troy Perkins will get a chance to prove himself next season.

The Freddy Adu question still remains. Does he stay or go?

Nowak probably now wishes he had played Adu in the last, and meaningless game, of the regular season against Columbus. However, for Adu to go public just before the playoffs was senseless.

If Adu stays, Nowak may need to bend with the wind a little. For those who have raised teenagers, the “my way or the highway” philosophy can often feed rebellion.

It was a long 45-game season for United. Next season the schedule will be lighter as the club will not be playing in the CONCACAF Cup or the Copa Sudamericana.

The players now are looking for a nice break. Moreno is off to Bolivia to visit his family. Josh Gros is going home to Pennsylvania to bag some deer, while Bobby Boswell says he’s heading to the gym to beef up.

Gem in the rough — Is the Chicago Fire’s Chris Rolfe, who tormented United’s defense on Sunday, the new Joe-Max Moore of American soccer? Watch this rookie play and he looks like he came straight out of the mold that produced Moore, who played 100 games for the U.S. team.

The finals — The MLS conference finals feature the Los Angeles Galaxy at the Colorado Rapids today at 9 p.m. (Fox Soccer Channel), while the Chicago Fire travel to the New England Revolution tomorrow at 3 p.m. (ESPN2). Prediction: The Revolution will advance to play the Galaxy in Dallas on Nov.13 and get revenge for the 2002 loss in the final at Foxborough before 61,316.

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