- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

D.C. United rolls into Chicago today staring at a two-goal deficit in Major League Soccer’s Eastern Conference semifinals. If United is to reach the conference final, it must score at least two goals and allow none against the Chicago Fire just to force a 30-minute overtime.

If United is unable to do so at Soldier Field, its eighth season will end after today’s Game 2 of this total-goals series.

“There’s no reason that we cannot get a win, but if we play like we did last weekend [in a 2-0 loss at RFK Stadium], we won’t win the game,” United coach Ray Hudson said. “If we play individually like we did last Saturday, we will not win the game. The stars need to come out bright. They had the opportunity in front of the home fans last week, and we didn’t do it.”

United was the only MLS team to defeat the Fire at home this season. However, it didn’t happen at spacious Soldier Field (70-by-116 yards) but at North Central College’s smaller Cardinal Stadium (69-by-110). Actually, a larger field is better suited for United because the club plays half its games on RFK’s big pitch.

The Fire, the best team in MLS this season (15-7-8), simply outclassed United in the playoff opener. United created few scoring chances and didn’t do much with its possessions.

Solid flank play will be critical to United’s success given the offensive tendencies of Fire wide midfielders DaMarcus Beasley, Justin Mapp and Andy Williams. All three like to push forward to get into the attack. Of the three, Beasley plays the best defense. United needs to exploit the Fire’s wings with quick counters and get behind Chicago’s defense.

“We’ve got to get at them, we’ve got to be more organized, we’ve got to play the ball forward quicker and take our opportunities to get some scoring chances, said left flank midfielder Bobby Convey. “I don’t think we were dangerous enough when we played them here.”

With United’s season on the line, Hudson is calling on his best attacking players. Defender Galin Ivanov will start at left back for Brandon Prideaux because he distributes the ball better from out of the back. United will go with a 4-4-2 alignment with Bryan Namoff playing wide right in an attempt to neutralize Beasley.

Up top, United has some interesting options. Forward Ronald Cerritos has missed practice all week with the flu. Hudson said he probably will start Santino Quaranta, who would be making his first start for the club since late July and be paired alongside Earnie Stewart.

Quaranta, 20, struggled most of the season trying to recover from a knee injury suffered while playing with the U.S. Under-20 national team. The striker had arthroscopic surgery in September and missed the tail-end of the season. In MLS this season, Quaranta scored just one goal and added three assists — statistically his worst year.

Hristo Stoitchkov, who is tied with Ben Olsen as United’s second-leading scorer with 15 points, most likely will come on as a second-half substitute instead of starting, as he did in Game 1.

“Hristo has a lot to contribute in the second half when we really need him,” Hudson said. “He’s never failed us. It’s been his best role.”

United shouldn’t regard its two-goal deficit as too big a mountain because six of the Fire’s seven losses this season were by two or more goals. Also, Chicago’s last three losses were one-sided. In the regular-season finale, the Columbus Crew crushed the Fire 6-2.

“My belief is that we shouldn’t worry about getting a quick goal — whatever comes, comes,” Stewart said. “I believe we have to go out and keep the ball. As long as you have the ball, they are not going to score.”

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