- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 15, 2006

D.C. United coach Peter Nowak is not afraid to play mind games with his players.

Going into last week’s game against the New England Revolution, with the playoffs just two games away, Nowak had his players approach the match as if it were the preseason, an attempt to get them motivated about the approaching postseason. United had a 22-11 advantage in shots but still lost 2-1 because of defensive errors.

For today’s regular-season finale against the Chicago Fire at RFK Stadium, Nowak took a different tack. He told his players that when they run onto the turf to have one thing on their mind: Nov. 12, the date of the MLS Cup Final in Frisco, Texas.

“The most important thing now is having the right mentality,” Nowak said. “In the back of our minds, November 12 is the date, and we want to be there. It’s the date we want to finish the season on. So for me the message is pretty simple. Every touch you have, every corner kick, every free kick, every tackle, every sprint you are going to make in the next four or five weeks, you have to be thinking about November 12. There’s no better season than to raise the trophy at the end of the season. So the mental part must be better and must be sharper, and we will start with this week, this game.”

United is certainly in need of a good performance after earning just two wins in 12 games.

“We can’t just keep switching off and on,” Nowak said. “After winning the Supporter’s Shield [given to the team with the best record], there was a time then when we expected everything to go our way and it didn’t.”

United will need to be at its best against Chicago. United is 1-2-1 against the Fire in all competitions this season.

“Especially against Chicago you have to bring your A-game because the team will fight,” said Nowak, who spent five standout seasons (1998-2002) as a player with Chicago. “It doesn’t matter what the name is or who you play. It’s a matter of concentration, focus and confidence and being hungry for success.”

Over the years, the rivalry between United and the Fire has become intense. Nowak helped lead the Fire to a 2-0 win against United in the 1998 MLS Cup. Since then the teams are dead even (11-11-5).

“It started in ‘98,” Nowak said. “Everyone wants to come to the D.C. level of playing.”

And games against Chicago also have been physical affairs this year, resulting in 21 yellow cards and four players being ejected.

“These games are physical because some teams figure out, ‘Let’s kick, let’s disrupt them, let’s provoke them and maybe we will have success with that,’” Nowak said.

United will be missing starting goalie Troy Perkins for the game, who is recovering from strep throat. Perkins did practice yesterday, but Nowak is likely to start backup keeper Nick Rimando, who has made one start this year.

“The weather has changed dramatically, and we don’t want to have a situation where we have a sick locker room,” Nowak said.

A win over the Fire would help United’s confidence. The teams could meet in the playoffs if they both advance from the conference semifinals.

“[Chicago’s] style is so similar to ours, and it takes a while to adjust to that when we play them,” United striker Rod Dyachenko said.

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