Defending champs determined to repeat

Though the team's opening match takes place on Saturday, D.C. United's 2005 MLS season officially began on Tuesday when the squad was introduced to its benefactors and most influential fans at the First XI Charity Kickoff Luncheon.

Primarily a celebration of United For D.C., the club's community service arm, the luncheon also served as a coming-out party for the reigning MLS Cup champion. Some players looked noticeably more comfortable than others in business suits and dress shoes, but after a long, far-flung preseason, all expressed their eagerness to suit up for a regular season match.

"We've been kicking each other for a month and a half," says rookie winger Nick van Sicklen. "We're ready to kick someone else. It'll be good to get into L.A. and play Chivas."

"We're ready," added striker Santino Quaranta. "It's been a long preseason, but everybody made it through pretty healthy. We're excited to get started."

Dig a little deeper, however, and you'll find traces of uncertainty beneath the widespread confidence. With the arrival of the Washington Nationals at RFK Stadium, United will be the first-ever MLS team to share a facility with a baseball team. It remains to be seen how effectively the franchises can co-exist, not only in terms of economic competition but also the unprecedented transformation of the RFK playing surface between games.

"Both we and the Nationals are trying to be accommodating of one another," says team president and CEO Kevin Payne. "It's not an ideal situation, but I think everybody's operating in good faith. The question is, what does the field end up looking like?"

Beyond that, team observers have almost universally cited United's ability to cope with the loss of former captain Ryan Nelsen as the key to the Black-and-Red's title defense, and despite plenty of preseason shuffling along the back line, lingering doubts remain.

"Nellie is a huge loss for us," says goalkeeper Nick Rimando. "He brought a lot of organization and communication on the field, and I think we need to bring that back. Come Saturday, we really need to know that, work on it and get that organization down."

Nelsen, a hard-nosed center back from New Zealand, anchored United's defense for four seasons before departing MLS for the English Premiership's Blackburn Rovers FC this past January.

Former winger Earnie Stewart, another calming locker room presence during United's tumultuous 2004 title season, has also hopped across the Atlantic, returning to his soccer roots with Dutch club VVV Venlo.

Their inspiring leadership on and off the field will be missed, although United can look to longtime veterans Jaime Moreno and Ben Olsen for guidance. D.C.'s front office specifically addressed the loss of Stewart with their signing of Steve Guppy, a 36-year-old Englishman who offers canny wing play and top-level experience with clubs like Glasgow Celtic and Leicester City.

Guppy's arrival adds to an already-impressive stable of wingers which should be even more influential this season under head coach Peter Nowak's attacking-friendly 3-5-2 system. The gritty Josh Gros seems destined to become a day-in, day-out starter, while van Sicklen, United's top SuperDraft pick, has so far made a smooth adjustment to the professional level. His pace, sharp touches and aggressive mindset fit well in Nowak's system.

Left-footers Freddy Adu and Eliseo Quintanilla have also seen time on the wing during preseason, while Quaranta, though a natural striker, can also be deployed on the right flank.

Last year Nowak showed a preference for saving Adu as a substitute, using the wunderkind's energy and flair to light a spark in the second half of many matches. Adu is undoubtedly eager to step into a starting role this season, but he faces stiff competition for playing time among a strike force stacked with seasoned pros.

Christian Gomez, last year's stretch-run revelation, has the inside track on United's attacking midfield spot, and his keen tactical understanding matches well with strikers Moreno and Alecko Eskandarian. If this creative trio can stay in form and injury-free, they could easily be the top-scoring attack in MLS. But should Moreno again fall victim to the injury bug, or Eskandarian see his red-hot goalscoring cool off, United can turn to Quaranta and Chivas USA castoff Jamil Walker, two capable strikers with plenty to prove.

At the moment, the problematic back line is being guided by Mike Petke, a respected veteran whose commitment to the cause is unshakeable. But Nowak, Payne and technical director Dave Kasper have made no secret of the fact that they are actively shopping for a foreign center back, having already hosted several trialists.

However, with only one senior international roster spot at their disposal, United are determined to make a careful, considered choice, and could wait to see how Petke responds to this new challenge.

"I hope that we don't rush to find somebody to fill Ryan Nelsen's void, because if they want to fill that void with a foreign player, it has to be the right person," says Petke. "We're confident, with or without a new signing, that we're ready to play."

"For now, we know we are good enough to compete in this league," said Nowak during preseason training in Florida. "With Christian (Gomez), we waited four months to sign him, because we wanted to make sure that everything was in place. So if we have to wait, we will wait. We will do OK. But do we have a championship team? I don't think so."

Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.


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