D.C. United has a number of challenges in its opening playoff game against the New York Red Bulls on Saturday:
They will be facing Red Bulls coach Bruce Arena, who coached United from 1996 to 1998. Arena probably knows United better than any other coach in the league.
United has lost three straight games. The Red Bulls are coming off a morale-boosting 3-2 win over the Kansas City Wizards.
But perhaps the team's biggest worry is playing on the artificial turf at Giants Stadium, which can be a humbling experience for a skilled team.
"It's very different and takes a little to get used to," United striker Alecko Eskandarian said. "In the last game up there, our passing was awful because the ball was so bouncy and it was hard to control."
United had no problem at Giants Stadium in April in a 4-1 win, but in August, against new Red Bulls coach Arena, United was held to a scoreless tie.
"They are used to that surface more than us and the last time we played them up there they looked pretty good," United midfielder Ben Olsen said.
United is known for its stylish possession soccer -- keeping the ball on the ground with crisp passing sequences -- and that game does not always work well on artificial turf, where the ball bounces more. Still, in 22 games at Giants Stadium, United is 10-8-4, but they fare better on the grass at RFK, where they are 14-7-1 against the Red Bulls franchise.
"It's a terrible surface to play on because the ball bounces everywhere and the quality of play just decreases," United goalie Troy Perkins said.
United coach Peter Nowak said his team will prepare for the game by practicing on its artificial turf field at RFK's auxiliary facilities tomorrow before leaving for the New York area.
"There's a different bounce to the ball -- it's not a true bounce," defender Bryan Namoff said. "So you have to concentrate more and it takes you a while to get into the grove of the game."
The artificial turf at Giants Stadium was laid in 2003 and is known as synthetic FieldTurf, which is softer under foot than the artificial turf that once carpeted stadiums such as the Astrodome. FieldTurf is thicker and more denser than the old fake surfaces, and more shock-absorbing. It's made of polyethylene with "grass fibres" that emulate real grass.
"It definitely plays a part in the way you play, but it's the same for both teams," said United striker Jaime Moreno, who has scored a record 21 goals against the Red Bulls.
United has played New York only twice in the playoffs at Giants Stadium.
In 1996, United lost in a shootout against the formerly named MetroStars in its first ever playoff game, but went on to win the series 2-1. In 2004 United swept the MetroStars 2-0 in the first round of the playoffs. In both seasons, United advanced to win the MLS Cup for its first and fourth titles.
Notes -- United's return game against the Red Bulls is at RFK on Oct. 29 at 6 p.m. ...
Midfielder Christian Gomez took home three awards at D.C. United's awards event Monday. The talented playmaker earned the team MVP award, the Golden Boot for most goals (14) and the fans' choice award.
"If there's any justice at all, he will be the MLS MVP this year," team president Kevin Payne said.