- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 16, 2011

D.C. United face a daunting task Saturday night at Real Salt Lake. In the wake of last week’s demoralizing 4-2 home defeat against San Jose, United must find a way to regain momentum in a place that has brought them nothing but despair in recent years.

Salt Lake (6-3-3) has not dropped a home match against United (4-5-4) since its inaugural MLS season in 2005, owning a 5-0 record and a 13-3 goal advantage at home since.

Yet a Salt Lake roster plagued by injuries and national team absences might make United’s westward trek a bit less intimidating.

Salt Lake’s marquee playmaker, midfielder Javier Morales, will remain sidelined with a fractured ankle. The team’s attacking corps will not run at full strength, as Alvaro Saborio and Arturo Alvarez must fulfill Gold Cup duties while Paulo Jr. will sit out with an injury.

Salt Lake might carry added motivation into the contest after suffering a 2-1 loss at Columbus last week, followed by a respectable 1-1 tie at Eastern Conference co-leader Philadelphia. The 2009 MLS champions hunger for a much-needed three-point result as they jockey for position in the middle of the Western Conference table.

Clinging to fifth place in the Eastern Conference, United find themselves in a similar position. With 21 games left, however, plenty of work remains to be done. The challenge begins with erasing the memory of Saturday’s letdown against the Earthquakes, which ended a five-game unbeaten streak.

“We’ve been a little upset about our result over the weekend,” United midfielder-forward Chris Pontius said. “Everyone’s a little angry at practice, which is good. It’s good to let that anger out of players, and we can just focus on Salt Lake now.”

Given their impressive road outings recently, United might not be fazed by the fact that Salt Lake has dropped just one match at Rio Tinto Stadium since May 2009. United ended the Portland Timbers’ perfect home record with a 3-2 win and followed that up with a hard-earned scoreless draw at league-leading Los Angeles.

To keep that road momentum alive, United coach Ben Olsen will have at least one tough lineup decision to make when he designates his starting forwards. Leading goal-scorer Charlie Davies appears to have recovered from his hamstring injury after receiving 28 minutes of playing time against San Jose and could get the starting nod Saturday.

With Saborio, Alvarez and Paulo Jr. out of the picture, United must contend with Fabian Espindola, the Argentine whose two goals in the last three games render him Salt Lake’s primary scoring threat. Espindola provides a spark to a team geared toward possession and build-up attacks.

“They’re very dangerous, very good with the ball,” United midfielder Dax McCarty said. “They’ll probably out-possess you, and they’re going to create some chances. We have to stay compact defensively, and when we do get our opportunities to keep the ball we have to do it.”

With all the adversity that awaits United, Saturday’s character-testing showdown could emerge as a seminal juncture for one of the youngest teams in MLS.

“We’ve tried to move on. We’ve tried to learn from the mistakes we made [against] San Jose,” McCarty said. “The intensity, the will to get better, the fight and the energy in training has been excellent.

“So for us it’s just about moving on and learning from our mistakes and going to Salt Lake, a notoriously tough place to get results, and try to come out of there with a win.”