- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 11, 2001

PASADENA, Calif. D.C. United's players ended their final practice before their most important stretch of the season by taking pot shots at their coach.

Playfully, that is.

As part of a bet, coach Thomas Rongen went into the goal to try to make some saves. But instead of issuing one shot at a time, about 15 players fired at once and sent him scurrying and laughing.

For Rongen, that ending to yesterday's practice across the street from the Rose Bowl symbolized what he called the "tremendous, tremendous camaraderie" his team feels despite a frustrating season.

"We're still enjoying each other, which is not easy under tough times," Rongen said. "It's very easy to isolate yourself and point fingers, and we haven't done that. To me, that's very encouraging.

"With the talent that we have and with a lot of young players contributing, we have a tremendous belief that we can still reach the playoffs."

United must start turning that belief into reality tonight against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the Rose Bowl. United and the New England Revolution trail the Dallas Burn by five points in the race for Major League Soccer's final playoff spot with eight games left.

Los Angeles will be returning to MLS competition after 25 days. The Galaxy was supposed to be in Spain competing in the FIFA World Club Championship. But the tournament's cancellation caused a gap in the schedule that proved nearly impossible to fill.

Since a 3-2 loss at New England on July 17, Los Angeles has played just twice a 10-9 victory on penalty kicks against San Jose in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup on July 24 and a 2-2 tie against Necaxa of Mexico's First Division on Tuesday night.

The Galaxy has scored more goals than any other MLS team this season except Miami. Cobi Jones leads the offense with five goals and 19 points. But making the most dramatic impact is Luis Hernandez, the Mexican national team's all-time leading goal scorer.

Hernandez, who cost MLS about $8.5 million in salary and transfer fees, has a team-leading eight goals after scoring only four last year.

Defensively, Los Angeles has three shutouts in its past five MLS games. Matt Reis has supplanted Kevin Hartman as the starting goalkeeper and has six shutouts, one less than the MLS co-leaders, Chicago's Zach Thornton and Dallas' Matt Jordan.

United goalkeeper Mike Ammann might return to the starting lineup after missing the Giants' Cup final against Club America of Mexico City. Ammann has been suffering a sublexing ulnar nerve, which causes numbness in both elbows and must be remedied by off-season surgery, said trainer Rick Guter.

"Mike is going to fight through it," Rongen said. "He's a tough guy and he's one of our team leaders. We need him down the stretch."

Defender Craig Ziadie is suspended for the game after accumulating too many caution points.

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