Friday, October 24, 2003

Ray Hudson faces the biggest test of his coaching career tonight when D.C. United gets its final opportunity to gain a Major League Soccer playoff spot without help.

United needs a tie or a win against the Kansas City Wizards at RFK Stadium to assure postseason play and end what Hudson has called “the nightmare [regular] season.”

The club could lose tonight and still make the playoffs if the Chicago Fire (15-6-8, 51 points) beat or tie the Columbus Crew (9-12-8, 35 points) on the road tomorrow, but that’s obviously a risky proposition. United last made the playoffs in 1999, when it won the MLS Cup.

Regardless of the result against the Wizards tonight, Hudson said he wants to return next season, contrary to reports.

“There’s been a lot of misconception,” he said. “I want to rebuild this club. … I want to make this team better on an operational level on the field and off the field. I’ll be very upset if I don’t get the chance to be with the boys next season. There’s a lot of work to be done here, like getting better training facilities.”

Hudson believes United’s record (10-11-8, 38 points) and next-to-last standing in MSL’s Eastern Division does not reflect the quality of his team.

“A month ago, we were one of the best teams in MLS,” Hudson said. “We were on a roll and everyone was talking about us, and then our key players went down one by one.” (United lost goalie Nick Rimando and midfielder Ben Olsen to season-ending injuries.)

But Hudson knows his future with the club is not in his hands.

“If the club wants changes, I can sleep with that, but I will be very disappointed,” he said. “We have been dealt some brutal cards this season.”

Key midfielder Marco Etcheverry, who missed Sunday’s game due to suspension, was not at a training session yesterday and is unlikely to play tonight.

Etcheverry, the team’s scoring leader (six goals, seven assists, 19 points) was given permission to travel to his native Bolivia to try and get his son out of the country, which has been plagued by civil unrest. He was expected back Thursday, but as of yesterday no one knew where he was.

“I’m just beside myself,” Hudson said. “I’m lost for words. He’s a massive miss. Now I have all sorts of question marks over the squad [for tonights game].”

United also will be missing suspended midfielder Dema Kovalenko, but veteran star Earnie Stewart, who missed Sunday’s game with a groin injury, should be back in the lineup.

Meanwhile, a senior club official said United could lose a million dollars if it doesn’t make the playoffs. United has sold 15,000 tickets for tonight’s game.

United thought it had made the playoffs when defender Mike Petke headed in a late goal Sunday at RFK to tie Columbus 2-2, but the Crew scored a stunning game-winner in the dying seconds of overtime.

“When I put that goal in, it was the happiest moment of my career so far,” Petke said. “I thought that would put us in the playoffs. But then what happened next was heartbreaking.”

Some players will be fighting for their jobs tonight, Petke said.

“If we end the season on a losing note, I would seriously think there are going to be a lot of new players next year,” he added. “Our job consists of 90 minutes a week. If guys can’t show up for that 90 minutes, then they should go out and get an eight-hour day job and see how they like that.”

The red-hot Wizards arrive at RFK riding a four-game winning streak and are in second place in the Western Division. United has lost two straight and is winless in five of its last six games.

Wizards playmaker Preki, 40, is the MLS points leader going into the last game of the season with 11 goals and 17 assists for 39 points. Carlos Ruiz (15 games, five assists, 35 points) of the Los Angeles Galaxy and Chicago’s Ante Razov (14 games, six assists, 34 points) are chasing the Yugoslav native. However, Kansas City will be missing injury-plagued World Cup star Josh Wolff, who broke a rib in training this week.

If United fails to get a point tonight, the club’s hopes will depend on the Fire at Columbus tomorrow. Chicago, which has won the Eastern Division, is likely to rest some key players, but star striker Ante Rasov (14 goals) will be looking to win the MLS goal-scoring title and needs two goals to do it.

If United makes the playoffs, it will play a two-game Eastern Conference series with the Fire. The first game would be at RFK Stadium on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., the second at Soldier Field on Sunday, Nov.9, at 1 p.m.

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