- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 30, 2006

D.C. United may have found the next Marco Etcheverry in midfielder Christian Gomez.

United general manager Kevin Payne called Etcheverry the league’s greatest player ever when the Bolivian midfielder was recently honored. But Gomez could be having just as much impact on United that Etcheverry did.

Gomez, who turns 32 next month, has played 67 league games for United, scoring 26 goals and earning 20 assists. In Etcheverry’s first 67 league games for United, he scored 13 goals and had 44 assists. While Etcheverry was involved in more goals (57) than Gomez (46), using the old MLS scoring system for leaders — two points for a goal and one point for an assist — Gomez (72) edges Etcheverry (70) by two points.

“The approach on how they play is completely different,” Payne said. “There are few players really anywhere in the world who could bring an entire field into play once they got the ball like Marco. His passing and imagination, and the way he could hit the ball from a distance were remarkable. Christian, on the other hand, wants to gets more actively involved in the attack. He wants to get the ball and run at people and play it off and get it back.”

Gomez scores more goals that Etcheverry, whose biggest haul was 10 in 1998 — his best year with the team when he was 28 years old.

“Christian is the last off a dying breed of No. 10 players,” United technical director Dave Kasper said. “He is always thinking about that final third. How can he make penetrating runs and make that right pass to put players in a position to score.”

In his first full MLS season in 2005, Gomez had 64 shots and 37 shots on goal in 31 games. In Etcheverry’s first season, he had 51 shots and 30 on goal in 26 games. In 27 games this season, Gomez has notched 55 shots and 28 on goal.

“Both players have a gift for reading the game and seeing two plays ahead,” Kasper said. “[Gomez] is one of the leaders in scoring goals this year [11] and leads the league in assists [11], so he is very balanced in terms of his attacking ability.”

With the playoffs just three games away, Gomez is clearly the leading candidate to win the league’s MVP award, which was won by Etcheverry in 1998. Gomez earned the MLS Player of the Week award for the second time this month after being involved in every United goal in a 4-3 win over the New York Red Bull last week.

Gomez came to United after being spotted in 2003 by Kasper and former United coach Ray Hudson on a scouting trip to Argentina. When he arrived at a struggling United (6-8-7) in 2004, he made an immediate impact. Gomez played in nine games (5-2-2), scoring four goals to help the team end the season on a winning note (11-10-9). He then played in all four playoff games as United claimed its fourth MLS title.

“The instinct of everyone at the time was that we needed a big forward, but we felt we needed a No. 10, someone who could direct the attack, and he turned out to be the player,” Kasper said.

Gomez continued his stunning form last season, scoring 11 goals and nine assists in 31 games, but ended the season on a bad note when he was ejected for spitting in the 4-0 loss to the Chicago Fire in the playoffs at RFK.

Gomez doesn’t play as deep as Etcheverry in the midfield and unlike the Bolivian ace, he doesn’t have the dominant personality. Etcheverry constantly demanded the ball and most of United’s attacking probes went through him.

“Christian doesn’t have the same range that Marco did with his passing,” Payne said, “but he’s thinking more about scoring goals and that was rarely the first thing on Marco’s mind.”

Etcheverry was known for his amazing left foot and his pinpoint passing, while Gomez has different, but equally effective dimension to his game, such as his direct running at the goal and his knack of scoring.

“It’s an honor that people think I have some of the qualities that Marco had because I know what an impact he had on the club,” Gomez said through a translator.

So has United found another legendary player like Etcheverry in the speedy Gomez?

“If he can help us win another championship this year, then it becomes a little easier to talk about Christian in the same breath as Marco,” Payne said.

Notes — United defender Facundo Erpen will miss today’s game at Houston because of serving a two-game suspension for a red card last week. … United can claim the Supporter’s Shield, awarded to the team with the league’s best record, with a win in Houston or an FC Dallas loss at the Columbus Crew, or if both United and Dallas tie their games.

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