The U.S. national team concluded its 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign in fine style on Wednesday night, winning CONCACAF's hexagonal group round with a thrilling 2-2 draw against Costa Rica at RFK Stadium after having already secured a World Cup berth with a match to spare.
Things don't look quite so rosy for RFK's full-time tenants, however. Needing two victories of their own as well as several favorable results elsewhere in order to snare a playoff spot, D.C. United are a team with their backs against the wall as the MLS season draws to a close.
To make matters worse, the squad is missing five regular starters for Saturday's home match against the Columbus Crew -- but Tom Soehn and his staff are doing everything they can to improve their chances, including the last-ditch acquisition of goalkeeper Steve Cronin on loan from USL-1 side Portland Timbers.
United were chock-a-block with netminders just a few months ago when Louis Crayton, Josh Wicks and Milos Kocic jockeyed for the starting job. But Crayton's midsummer release and a dual injury blow to Wicks late last month left the Black-and-Red with Kocic as their sole healthy 'keeper and the coaching staff has decided not to stand pat, bringing in former L.A. Galaxy starter Cronin to challenge the Serbian rookie.
"We've had him in for the week and he's done very well," said Soehn of Cronin on Thursday. "He's got quite a bit of experience, having played in L.A. and Portland, and it's going to stay competitive between the two to see who's going to play on the weekend."
Cronin worked his way up the ladder over three seasons with the Galaxy and started 22 matches during their trying 2008 campaign, but soon left the club as new head coach Bruce Arena brought in veteran Jamaican Donovan Ricketts as part of a larger roster reshuffling. Cronin returned to form with an impressive campaign in Portland, leading the Timbers to a league-best record of 16-4-10 and earning USL-1 Goalkeeper of the Year honors with a 0.68 goals-against average.
Portland were shocked by upstarts Vancouver in the semifinal round of the playoffs, falling 5-4 on aggregate to conclude their year on a frustrating note. But Cronin got word of United's interest just a few days later and he hopes to make the most of his return to MLS, however brief or long it may be.
"It was a disappointing end in Portland but as they say, when one door closes, another opens," he said after United's training session on Tuesday. "It's a great opportunity -- I'm looking forward to doing what I can for this club. I'm excited."
Cronin faces a race against time to build rapport with his new teammates and his task is pressurized by United's desperate situation. D.C. must beat Columbus -- current league leaders and reigning MLS Cup champs -- at RFK on Saturday, then secure another three points in Kansas City next weekend if they are to have any chance at participating in the postseason.
In between, they will undergo a daunting trip to Mexico for a CONCACAF Champions League against Toluca that will determine whether they progress to that tournament's knockout rounds. Nonetheless, Cronin makes no bones about his desire to step right into the first XI.
"I'm fighting to play," he said. "I came in here with every intention to play and it's up to me to prove that I should and that I can on this weekend, carrying over into next week."
Kocic has seen a decent amount of playing time in his first MLS season despite the presence of older, more experienced 'keepers. The former Serbian youth international has made four appearances in league play along with three Champions League and three U.S. Open Cup starts, but with so much on the line over the next 10 days, he may now see another veteran step ahead of him.
"He's got to realize that we need competition in all spots, not just at the goalkeeper position," said goalkeepers coach Mark Simpson of Kocic. "He realizes what it is, it's a professional business and he needs to be pushed just like anybody else. Even if he's not the guy in there, he needs to know that he needs to push the next guy. And that happens all over the field every week."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com