- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 13, 2009

As D.C. United coach Tom Soehn spoke about his team’s chemistry, his voice was lost amid thumping bass emanating from the locker room down the hall.

As he continued, his players poured out. Some were laughing and joking with each other, but all of them were smiling.

Can you blame them?

Rebounding from its sixth-place finish in 2008 - the team’s worst in its 14-season history - United can gain sole possession of the Eastern Conference lead with a win against the Chicago Fire on Saturday at RFK Stadium.

“You can always tell [if] your team has a good chance of doing something special when you look at your locker room,” Soehn said. “And right now our locker room is a pretty good place to be.”

Captain Ben Olsen said a few key additions - namely Rodney Wallace and Chris Pontius - have increased the team’s depth and that United’s rookies are playing about as well as anyone could have hoped.

That stands as a stark contrast to last year’s team, which was decimated by injuries and featured Marcelo Gallardo, an Argentine star who failed to live up to expectations and was released Jan. 30. After receiving a $1.9 million salary - triple any salary ever given to a United player - Gallardo played only 15 games, scoring four goals.

“It couldn’t have gotten much worse,” Olsen said. “Credit the staff and the front office [for] making good moves. You get a couple of rookies that are very good and succeeding for us, and you get rid of some of the guys that weren’t doing it.”

Soehn called last year an anomaly and said the team purposely built a deeper roster to prevent injuries from ruining another season. Even as Olsen has missed six games with a hamstring injury - which he said is healing slowly but has allowed him to start training again - United (4-2-7, 19 points) has lost only twice.

United’s depth - evidenced by the fact that 13 players have played in seven games or more and 21 players have started at least one game - has fostered a more competitive atmosphere.

“[The depth] makes the training sessions so much more competitive because now there isn’t really a set standard starting 11,” defender Bryan Namoff said. “I think having that is so important, especially because the length of the season is so long.”

Namoff and others praised Wallace and Pontius for adjusting quickly to the professional game. The two have played in every game so far, and Wallace said he feels more confident every day.

“Especially when we play teams twice, I kind of know what to expect,” he said. “I think I’m making the right adjustments.”

But midfielder Santino Quaranta said the team still needs to improve its ability to put teams away. United already has seven ties, several of them coming after losing a halftime lead.

“We have to put our chances away, especially at home,” he said. “I just think more urgency on everything [is needed].”

On the other hand, because of the team’s improved chemistry, Namoff said he is starting to see a squad that is ready to contend for a championship.

“As many years as I’ve played, I’ve seen the best of things, and likewise I’ve seen the worst of things,” said Namoff, a nine-year veteran. “To be able to get back once again with a team such of this caliber… is such a great feeling because it’s one where you’re not feeling down leaving a training session. You know everyone is believing.

“It’s what I felt our team was when we did win [the MLS Cup] in 2004.”

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