- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

The morning after a 4-0 rout of Celtic FC, one of Europe’s best teams, D.C. United’s players weren’t celebrating.

Instead, they lifted weights at RFK Stadium early Thursday, preparing for tonight’s contest against the Columbus Crew, with one word echoing throughout the workout session: “Believe.”

Everyone associated with the team used that word.

They talked about believing in the team, the coaches, the game of soccer and most importantly, winning.

Because of that humble, hard-working attitude (a benchmark of third-year coach Peter Nowak’s approach) and the team’s 12-1-5 start (the best in the team’s 10-year history), United has a good chance of winning its fifth MLS Cup.

With 41 points in 18 games, United has a 17-point lead over the next best team in its conference and is on pace to finish with the most points in MLS history. In 1998, the Los Angeles Galaxy finished the season with a 24-8 record and 68 points.

But this season’s success is nothing new to United, the league’s most storied franchise. United has won a record four championships (1996, 1997, 1999, 2004) since MLS began in 1996.

“From the first day in the preseason I told these players I was about winning and nothing else,” Nowak said. “We kept this group of players because we believe in them. And if the players feel like you believe in them, not just the starting 11, but all of them, then you’ve got this kind of group that comes together for one goal. The structures have been in place for almost three years and we believe in how they play.”

Those structures are easily recognizable in the team’s various player transactions since Nowak’s arrival. The United in 2004 re-acquired Jaime Moreno after trading him to the Metro Stars in 2002. They also acquired midfielder Christian Gomez from Arsenal de Sarandi of the Argentine First Division. Finally, United drafted then-14-year-old Freddy Adu in 2004.

This season, the trio has anchored an offense that boasts a league-best 33 goals. Moreno leads the team with nine goals while Gomez and Adu have six assists apiece.

“It’s not changing the system and [instead] believing in the players that are here,” said Gomez, who recently was selected to his second All-Star Game. “There has not been much turnover in terms of personnel, so we believe in the system we have. It’s about believing in the way we play and believing in the philosophy of soccer, which is to keep the ball on the ground, to move it around, to pass it around, to be patient with the wall and create scoring opportunities.”

But even with the league’s most potent offense, United has won seven games by one goal — a testament to its defense.

An unlikely star leads the defensive unit, which has allowed the fewest goals in the league with a 0.78 goals against average.

Goalkeeper Troy Perkins was supposed to take a backseat to four-year starter Nick Rimando. But a preseason injury sidelined Rimando, and Perkins has filled in nicely.

While playing a league-leading 1,620 minutes, Perkins has a league-leading seven shutouts. He enters tonight’s match with a 198-minute shutout streak, helping to fuel United’s 12-game unbeaten streak.

“Everybody wants to play and it’s fair competition,” Nowak said. “We kept three goalkeepers and told them to be ready for every single game. Now [Perkins] has been tremendous and it is difficult for [Rimando] to jump in.”

Perkins is not alone in relishing a substitute role. United has had to deal with many absences this season and the reserves have stepped in.

Forward Lucio Filomeno left the team after 12 games to play for Nueva Chicago in his native Argentina. Forward Alecko Eskandarian, who has posted six goals and two assists, has missed several games with an MCL injury. Eskandarian received a red card against the Crew on July 8, which means he will have to serve his suspension tonight.

That has allowed Jamil Walker, Devon McTavish and Domenic Mediate to receive more playing time.

Midfielder Clyde Simms was given the task of replacing Ben Olsen while the latter represented the United States in Germany at the World Cup.

Olsen, who was United’s first developmental allocation in 1997 and has recorded 20 goals and 40 assists in his career, said he was impressed with Simms’ performance in his absence.

“It’s a very deep team,” Olsen said. “On top of being a deep team, I think we are hands down the most talented team in the league. … They have done so well in my absence that it has forced me to jump back quicker and work harder to get my spot back.”

Despite the team’s fast start and ability to successfully rely on the bench, Nowak is the first to point out that 15 games remain and his team has not won anything yet.

But United’s players echo Nowak’s sentiment and will not discuss the possibility of a championship or even future games.

“We understand that there are teams behind us in the standings that want to get at us,” Gomez said. “They want to catch up to us. They want to beat us every time we go out there. So it is our responsibility, as a team, to get better. We haven’t won anything yet. We’ve got big dreams for this team, but we haven’t won anything yet. Yes, we are winning, but we have not won anything. That is motivation enough to keep us going.”

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