- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2009

It has been a while, but time is finally on D.C. United’s side. After a number of hurried preseasons, United can take its time before the Major League Soccer season begins in late March, with no early competitive games to prepare for.

Last year, United’s first game was March 12 at Jamaican club Harbour View FC in the CONCACAF Champions Cup. In 2007, the team debuted Feb. 21 with a game at Honduran club CD Olimpia in the same event. This year, United’s first competitive game is not until March 22, when it opens its 14th season in MLS at Los Angeles.

“It’s comforting knowing you can take your time,” coach Tom Soehn said this week. “We can focus on everybody and make sure everyone’s sharp, because they did a good job in the offseason.”

In the past, United has been penalized for its success. After earning MLS’ best record in 2007, the club was involved in five different global events last year, playing a club-record 47 games in eight months. Injuries to key players on top of the clogged schedule helped cause United to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2002.

United faces a more moderate season in 2009. On top of MLS games, the club will defend its U.S. Open Cup title and enter the qualifying round of the CONCACAF Champions League. With Marcelo Gallardo, Jaime Moreno, Zach Wells and Ben Olsen all dealing with injuries, United certainly could use the extra time to prepare.

Entering his third year as coach, Soehn said he was impressed with his team’s first practice Thursday. Unlike last year, when the club brought in a crowd of fresh faces - notably from South America - the core of United’s 2008 team has returned.

“We went through a lot of adversity last year,” Soehn said. “So many things that could have gone wrong, went wrong. There were so many things that could have really deteriorated this group. But even at the end, when we were still without guys, this group came together and finished on a real positive note and with a real hunger to get back to work. Sometimes when you go through hard times like that, it brings guys together, and I feel like it did that to this group.”

Gallardo to return - General manager Dave Kasper said designated player Gallardo at one point this offseason wanted to leave for a club in his native Argentina, but he decided to rejoin United.

“Initially he expressed an interest in going back to Argentina, but it never went anywhere and that was early in December,” Kasper said.

Schedule change - United’s March 28 home opener has changed. The club will face Chicago, not San Jose.

Americans gear up - The U.S. national team is preparing for an intense year, beginning with a friendly against Sweden on Saturday in Carson, Calif.

The team faces at least 16 major games this year. With most of his big names playing overseas or injured, coach Bob Bradley will send out what looks like a reserve team against the Swedes.

The biggest game in World Cup qualifying is against Mexico on Feb. 11 in Columbus, Ohio. It’s vital that the Americans earn points in that game before the return match in Mexico, where no American team has won.

Young at heart - Two veterans from the 1999 World Cup team are taking a shot at Women’s Professional Soccer.

Goalie Briana Scurry, 37, was drafted by the Washington Freedom and will fight for the starting role; 40-year-old defender Brandi Chastain was drafted by FC Gold Pride of California’s Bay Area.

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