- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2003

D.C. United is demanding more of its highest-paid player, Marco Etcheverry. This week the club put the Bolivian midfielder on a strict fitness and nutritional program.

In a tumultuous season when United has suffered injuries to key players, heartbreaking losses and bizarre refereeing, Etcheverry, who earns the league’s top salary of $270,000, is facing the toughest — and possibly last — days of his career here at 32. Often considered the club’s most talented player, he is either being unfairly made a scapegoat for United’s 3-5-6 record or just not pulling his weight. He was left off the roster for today’s game in Chicago — because, a team official said, his heel was sore.

After a 3-0 loss at Columbus on June14, players and team officials began pointing fingers at Etcheverry, who once led the team to three Major League Soccer titles. He did not travel to the following game four days later at Dallas, where United put on its best performance of the year in beating the Burn 3-1. He also was replaced as captain after five seasons by 25-year-old defender Ryan Nelsen.

Etcheverry came back and played in last week’s 3-2 sudden-death home loss to the MetroStars, but apparently he is solidly in the team’s doghouse.

“He needs to get fitter in order to make a difference on this team,” said coach Ray Hudson. “He may be used sparingly until he is fit. It’s clear he needs to drop his weight, so we have asked him to work closely with his nutritionist and the fitness coach.”

In his defense, Etcheverry said he may have rushed back too soon from knee surgery earlier in the season.

“It’s my fault,” he said. “I got the [knee] surgery. I play after two weeks. Maybe I need more time to make fit. I think I came back too fast. Maybe two more weeks.”

As far as goals and assists go, Etcheverry is having a pretty good season. He is the club’s leading scorer with four goals and four assists for 12 points in 11 games. Last season he had three goals and eight assists (14 points) in 24 games, and in 2001 he managed 12 assists in 23 games for 12 points.

“He’s playing good, but he’s our No.10, our playmaker,” Hudson said. “The team is built around him, so he has to be more influential.”

Against the MetroStars, Etcheverry displayed some of his old brilliance when he set up a perfect cross to forward Alecko Eskandarian in the dying seconds of regulation time. But the rookie blew the easy chance, heading the ball over the bar.

“That’s the seduction of Marco, that’s the magic he can produce, but it has to happen more often,” said Hudson. “Two passes in 90 minutes is not enough.”

Hudson also wants to see more from 18-year-old forward Santino Quaranta, who has scored one goal in an injury-plagued season. Quaranta traveled with the team as a substitute.

This week in practice the club worked more on its shape and finishing in the final third of the field.

Today’s game against the Fire is another crucial match for United, which remains at the bottom of the Eastern Conference and five points adrift of a playoff spot.

“We are way past the big game focus,” Hudson said. “Every game is now a big game because we have no cushion or comfort zone. There’s a sense of quiet desperation, and it’s all for the sake of missing a goal here and there.”

Hudson will use a three-pronged attack against the Fire, with Hristo Stoitchkov, Ali Curtis and Eskandarian leading the offense. The rest of the starting lineup: Nick Rimando, Bryan Namoff, Brandon Prideaux, Mike Petke, Galin Ivanov, Ben Olsen, Dema Kovalenko and Nelsen. Curtis will be wearing a cast for a broken wrist.

Team notes — United defender Ivanov missed practice Wednesday but Hudson wasn’t complaining. The Bulgarian defender’s wife gave birth to their second child, a daughter named Valeria. … Defender Milton Reyes could begin training next month after a serious knee injury in the preseason.

Barcelona-Milan tickets available — MasterCard, the sponsor of the FC Barcelona vs. AC Milan game at RFK Stadium on July30, has a limited number of ticket packages that include access to the closed practice session the day before the match. Fans can go to www.championsworld.com for information.

Gold Cup — New England midfielder Steve Ralston has replaced Kansas City Wizards forward Josh Wolff on the U.S. team’s 18-man roster for the CONCACAF Gold Cup that starts today when the Americans play El Salvador at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass. Wolff tore ligaments in his knee in a game last week. DaMarcus Beasley also suffered a mild sprain in his right ankle during training this week and is listed as day-to-day.

The U.S. team plays Martinique at Gillette Stadium on Monday and, if it advances, will compete in the quarterfinals in Foxboro on Thursday. The Gold Cup semifinals will be at the Orange Bowl in Miami on June23 and the finals at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City on July27.

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