WASHINGTON - D.C. United has clearly struggled with consistency this season, an issue that dogged the team at different stages last year as well. For the last six weeks, United's attack has swung from feast to famine and back again, alternating between three-goal explosions (all at home) and discouraging shutouts (all on the road).
After last week's 3-2 win against Kansas City, United now prepares to host newfound powerhouse FC Dallas at RFK Stadium. But will the Jekyll-and-Hyde routine continue, and if so, which side will show up on Saturday?
Coach Peter Nowak tried to put the issue in perspective last week.
"Consider our schedule," said Nowak. "We've played four more games than anyone else (referring to United's CONCACAF Champions' Cup campaign). Sometimes the players just hit the wall. Sometimes you have no time to really work on the specific details with the team, sometimes it's just players getting tired.
"But these are all excuses. I still feel like, with our defensive play, we are pretty consistent right now. But we have to find a way right now to score the first goal, and score the second goal. These goals are very important."
In all competitions this season, United is undefeated when scoring the opening goal. But when forced to come from behind, they've only won once, against Jamaican side Harbour View FC in the Champions Cup. So the former Chicago Fire star is urging his players to rediscover the ruthless opportunism that helped them win the 2004 MLS Cup.
"I'm pretty confident that we can do the job, but we need to have absolute will to do that, and make sure that if we have the chances, we put them in," he said. "We've had the chances, we create the chances, we just don't kill them, and we have to do that."
Nowak has kept faith in his starting strikers, Jaime Moreno and Alecko Eskandarian, despite their on-again, off-again struggles to replicate the magical form of last year.
"They worked their butts off, that's why," he said. "We are all about honesty. Sometimes it's difficult (to get) through these times, but I'm very confident and I believe in them. Sooner or later they will be able to put it together."
The duo rewarded his patience with two assists and a goal against the Wizards, but Nowak still sees room for improvement.
"We're going to continue to work on the soccer part," he said, "because I felt like we created a couple of good chances, but we still have to put these chances away - Alecko in the first half, Jaime Moreno in the second half too. We have to make sure that when we create really good chances, we finish them."
Nowak and his staff are working hard to make sure that the fluid, free-scoring United shows up on Saturday, not the unlucky, uninspired one. An intense intrasquad scrimmage during Tuesday's practice proved to be an instructive moment, as one team erased a 5-1 deficit to come out with a 7-5 win, sentencing the losers to a healthy dose of running.
"They saw today - if you lose the game, if you don't run around during the game, you're going to run after that," said Nowak. "You cannot do these things. They were winning 5-1 and they lost 7-5. This is mental stuff, and this is what the players have to realize every single day.
"If you have a lead, you have to keep the lead, and make sure that you're going to play the same way with the same mentality. At the end of the day, you have to find a way to win. Sometimes it's defensively, sometimes more offensively, but the mentality never changes."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.