- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 21, 2006

The team that could do nothing wrong suddenly can’t do anything right.

D.C. United, which had a 14-game unbeaten run early in the season and seemed likely to finish with the best regular-season record in Major League Soccer history, enters the playoffs having won once in its last seven games and twice in its last 11.

“Which D.C. United team is going to show up?” said midfielder Ben Olsen, whose team has lost three straight and last won on Sept. 23 — a 4-3 triumph over New York.

D.C. United (15-7-10) has not played a truly meaningful game since locking up the top seed in the Eastern Conference Sept. 30. The club appears vulnerable as it faces the Red Bulls (9-11-12), who are coached by former United and U.S. national coach Bruce Arena.

“I am actually really anxious to go out there and see how we react,” said forward Alecko Eskandarian, whose team hasn’t won two straight since completing a seven-game victory streak July 15. “We don’t really have momentum going into this game. People are starting to doubt us a little bit and kind of write us off. That is what pressure is all about. This will show what we are made of and if we are champions.”

United doesn’t need to sweep the two-game semifinal series to advance to the conference finals. The team that scores the most goals in the series (the rematch takes place Oct. 29 at RFK Stadium) advances to the final. If the overall score is tied following overtime of the second game, a shootout decides the series.

There is little question about whether D.C. United has the star power and talent to win its fifth MLS championship.

Troy Perkins recently was named MLS Goalkeeper of the Year. Midfielder Christian Gomez (14 goals, 11 assists) is one of three finalists for Player of the Year. However, the poor level of play heading into the playoffs, and the effect it will have on the team, has raised concerns.

Last season United finished poorly and lost a two-game first-round series to Chicago 4-0. Coach Peter Nowak insists this season is different. He says United’s swoon is a result of having little to play for.

“The point is, we didn’t have any pressure from the other teams,” said Nowak, who led United to the 2004 MLS Cup in his first season. “There were always 15, 20 points between us and the second team in the Eastern Conference. This is human nature. I can understand it. I can accept it. Even though I expect my team to play at the highest level possible, it is human nature. Right now, it is a different season. It’s a four-game season. And we are going to play like we did early in the regular season.”

Nowak believes an “excellent” week of practice has helped the team improve problem areas, including defensive breakdowns.

“Our inability to deal with certain teams’ offense in certain points of the game has killed us,” said Olsen, whose team has allowed nine goals in the last four games.

While strategy has been tweaked to address some situations, players say X’s and O’s are not a main reason for their troubles.

“It has just been a lack of the proper mentality,” defender Bryan Namoff said. “I think the mental aspect wasn’t all there. We are starting to get that back. We are going to go into this game like we did early in the season. We have something to prove. Toward the end of the year, we had won [the top seed], and our motivation wasn’t there.”

United would seem to have plenty of motivation as it tries to avoid another early playoff exit.

“Winning breeds confidence, and we haven’t really had that,” said Olsen, an eighth-year veteran. “The way we have played lately hasn’t really been bad. We had times to make big plays, and we weren’t there. We were punished by the other teams when we did make mistakes. That is how the playoffs are going to go. Whoever makes the least mistakes and capitalizes on the other team’s is going to be the champs.”

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