- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 1, 2007

With D.C. United facing a playoff game tonight against Chicago at RFK Stadium, Jaime Moreno is in a familiar place. But compared to last season, he is in a better one.

The 33-year-old captain has pronounced himself fit for duty after being slowed by a foot injury in the second half of last week’s 1-0 playoff-opening loss to the Fire. His return is welcome news for United, which needs a victory and more total goals to advance to the championship.

“We’re a better team when he’s on the field,” said first-year coach Tom Soehn, who also will have a healthy Luciano Emilio, MLS‘ leading scorer this year.

United has won the MLS Cup four times and made the playoffs in nine out of 12 seasons, including the last five. Moreno, the most decorated player in franchise history and the league’s all-time leading goal-scorer, has experienced nearly all of United’s success. (He spent an unhappy 2003 season in New York). However, this time last year, he said he was “tired” and pondering retirement despite having a solid season in which he scored 11 goals, including five game-winners.

“Last year I was going through tough times,” he said. “Things. … People don’t know. People don’t care. It was personal stuff. It was affecting my performance, but I didn’t want to accept it that way. I didn’t want to make excuses. But I got it over with. Now everything’s fine.”

Moreno refused to elaborate on the nature of the difficulties, except to reiterate it was not professional.

“There were other issues,” he said. “Like I said, I can’t tell you. People don’t understand we’re human, too. But we have a normal life. We have problems. Sometimes there are other things going on, and sometimes you can’t perform like you should. That’s life. But the good thing is to rebound from that.”

Soehn briefly benched Moreno at the start of this season after United began 0-3. Moreno spent a month playing with the Bolivian national team in the Copa America during June and July, and even though he admitted he was “heartbroken” after Bolivia was eliminated, the competition sharpened his game. He finished the MLS season with just seven goals but had a renewed sense of purpose and more peace of mind.

“[I] just [needed to] be a man and step up my game and step up in my life and realize what’s important,” said Moreno, who has five children ranging in age from 18 months to 17 years. “I’m not saying that soccer is more important than my family, but that’s related.

“Definitely I have to think about it. I believed in what I wanted to do, and that’s what I did. I believed I wanted to keep playing, especially for this organization. I wanted to play for D.C. another season.”

In August, Moreno scored his 109th career goal, breaking Jason Kreis’ career record three months after he tied it. Moreno didn’t think much about it at the time but later realized the magnitude of the accomplishment.

“It was important for my country,” he said. “A lot of people were happy, especially my parents and my family and my friends.”

Despite the record, Moreno said he never considered himself primarily a goal-scorer. His critics say that with his skills in decline, the inevitable result of age, he definitely is not that now. He might not be the same player he used to be nor the same type of player, but he remains an important part of the United mix.

“I think Jaime has been and still is one of the best players ever to play in the league,” said United defender Greg Vanney, who like Moreno has played in MLS since its inception. “His composure on the ball, his ability to hold the ball, make good decisions with the ball and make other players around him better I really think is second to none.”

Think of a pitcher who loses a few miles an hour off his fastball but learns command and control, a quarterback who sacrifices arm strength for accuracy or a high-scoring basketball player who discovers making plays instead of points. Moreno has tweaked his game in similar fashion. He’s less about scoring goals and more about slowing down the tempo when necessary, making the right pass and putting his teammates in the right position.

“Like a lot of us as we get older, to be fair, he’s probably less dynamic in picking up the ball and actually running by people and running at people,” Vanney said. “On the contrary, he’s probably more comfortable handling the ball in tight spaces, and he makes other players better now. Before, he was a great player. Now he makes other players very good players.

“It becomes more of a mental game than a physical game,” Vanney said. “We don’t try to win games by running faster than people. We don’t try to win games by running over people. We perform at our best because we’re thinking. And because we’re very confident and very competent at what we do. But also because our brains are more advanced than some of the other players on the field. That’s experience. That’s what that word is. Wisdom in the game.”

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