Saturday, May 29, 2004

D.C. United’s defense is just not the same without center back and captain Ryan Nelsen.

After the first seven games with Nelsen anchoring the back line, United had allowed just eight goals, or 1.14 a game. But, in United’s last two games, which Nelsen missed because of a strained groin, the team allowed a staggering six goals.

“Of course it’s a bit of a factor, Ryan Nelsen is an all-star defender and probably going to play in England next year,” veteran defender Mike Petke said. “In my opinion, he’s one of the best defenders in this league. We have to deal with [his absence] and get by it.”

Nelsen will miss tonight’s important road game against the New England Revolution (1-3-3) and next Saturday’s game at the Chicago because of New Zealand national team duty in the Oceania Nations Cup from May28 to June6, which also doubles as the first phase of World Cup qualifying. The winner of the Oceania Nations Cup earns an automatic berth in the prestigious Confederation’s Cup, so it’s all a pretty big deal for Nelsen.

Nelsen captains his national team, for which he has six goals and 31 caps. Nelsen’s contract, which expires at the end of the season, is another issue facing United (2-4-3) and Major League Soccer. Last season the Scottish giant Glasgow Rangers showed interest in Nelsen after he scored against Scotland in New Zealand’s 1-1 tie in Edinburgh during an exhibition. If Nelsen, 26, plays out his MLS contract, he’ll be free to sign with any club, and MLS will not be owed a transfer fee from his new club.

By all indications, Nelsen wants to continue his playing career in Europe unless MLS makes him an offer he can’t refuse. He is making $90,554 this season, which is quite a bargain for the league.

Judging by the goals United has allowed in its past two games, the club sorely misses Nelsen’s leadership and organizational abilities on the back line.

“He holds the back three together,” defender Bryan Namoff said of Nelsen’s impact. “Obviously, he’s definitely been missed, but not only that, but the three games [in eight days] in such a short period of time also hurt us a little down the stretch.”

If United doesn’t beat the Revolution tonight, the club will have a worse record than last year’s team after the first 10 games. United was 2-3-5 with 11 points after 10 games last season and fired coach Ray Hudson after he had led the club to the playoffs for the first time in four years.

Successor Peter Nowak is counting on injured midfielders Bobby Convey (hamstring) and Ben Olsen (quadriceps) to play tonight. Of the two, Olsen appears more likely to do so, because he trained at full strength all week while Convey mostly ran on the side.

“Hopefully, Benny and Bobby Convey are going to be back, so it should be easier for us,” Nowak said.

Convey was called up for the U.S. men’s national team friendly against Honduras on Wednesday at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., and may sit out this United match so he doesn’t aggravate his injury. If Convey plays, it will be his first action since May8, when he exited in the 27th minute of United’s 1-1 tie against the Columbus Crew.

Notes — Injured United target forward Thiago Martins (ACL) said he is about two weeks away from being match-fit and ready to play. … United’s friendly against English club Nottingham Forest on July14 at RFK Stadium has turned into a soccer doubleheader, with the Washington Freedom of the defunct Women’s United Soccer Association playing the Nottingham Forest Ladies Football Club in a preliminary. Due to U.S. Olympic team committed, former Freedom stars Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach and Siri Mullinix will not play. At halftime, the Freedom will be honored with a banner for winning last year’s Founders Cup III championship.

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