not only for D.C., but the entire league -- is the fate of Freddy Adu. The teenager's hunger for consistent playing time has collided with his coach's team-first, disciplinarian philosophy, and it remains to be seen whether their relationship can be repaired.
United's front office has steadfastly backed Peter Nowak and recently extended his contract, despite the fact Adu's potential is unprecedented in U.S. soccer history. But whether Adu is traded away or brought back into the fold, the issue must be dealt with before the team can truly move forward.
WHAT WAS THE TEAM'S BEST MOMENT IN '05?
Heartbreaking defeats in the U.S. Open Cup and Copa Sudamericana tournaments left United wondering what might have been, but their loyal fans enjoyed two brighter moments against Eastern Conference rivals.
On June 18, the league-leading New England Revolution sailed into RFK Stadium having opened the season with an 11-game unbeaten streak, including two narrow victories against United. But the Black-and-Red sent the Revs crashing to earth with a convincing 2-0 win, sealed by a breathtaking goal from Moreno -- perhaps the only time all season MLS Rookie of the Year Michael Parkhurst was genuinely flummoxed.
Hard-core United devotees will also point to the Oct. 1 dismantling of the hated MetroStars at Giants Stadium, when D.C. kept possession of the Atlantic Cup on the strength of a Ben Olsen double, his first goals of the year.
Gomez was suspended for caution points accumulation that evening, but he entered club legend by making a surprise appearance among the large contingent of traveling United fans, happily banging a drum alongside the Barra Brava brigade.
WHO MADE THE MOST IMPROVEMENT OVER THE COURSE OF THE SEASON?
Despite the fact that he later lost his starting place to Argentine signing Facundo Erpen, Bobby Boswell deserves considerable credit for his rapid growth from undrafted rookie to capable center back. He also became a sizeable aerial threat, scoring three goals off set pieces.
Holding midfielder Brian Carroll continued his own steady development, warding off newcomer Clyde Simms' strong challenge for his starting spot early in the season and later earning a call-up from U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena. His assured showings in the USA's midfield have now catapulted him into dark-horse contention for a roster spot at next year's World Cup.
Speedy striker Jamil Walker also made great strides in 2004, overcoming an ill-fated stint with Chivas USA through a string of impressive reserve league performances that led to a super-sub role with the senior squad.
WHAT RESERVES ARE MOST READY TO MOVE INTO THE TEAM?
United has every reason to be proud of its development system. The club won the inaugural season of the MLS reserve league and also reaped quick rewards at the senior level, as Simms, Walker, Adu and John Wilson all kept sharp with the reserves while providing valuable depth for Nowak's side.
Central midfielder and local product Shawn Kuykendall played every minute for the reserves, and would likely have gained meaningful time with the seniors were it not for United's abundance of riches in his position. Fellow rookie Matt Nickell worked his way into consideration at the striker spot, and could become a real factor with a bit more seasoning.
WHAT AREA OF THE TEAM NEEDS THE MOST IMPROVEMENT?
The rearguard was often stretched dangerously thin by injuries this year, and the addition of another proven MLS defender could serve to light a fire under regular starters Brandon Prideaux and Bryan Namoff.
Questions remain as to whether Erpen has proven himself as the long-term replacement for Ryan Nelsen in the center of defense. His communication should improve as he grows more comfortable with the team's tactics and his own English language skills, but this season was plagued by breakdowns and mental lapses.
Goalkeeper Nick Rimando certainly factors into that equation as well, and his coaches must also decide if his aerial abilities and mental focus are up to their standards. His backup, Troy Perkins, can expect get more opportunities to impress during preseason -- and few would be surprised if United acquires a proven 'keeper to challenge the incumbents.
Above all, United will look to rediscover the spirit and spark that drove them to their fourth MLS Cup championship last year. That may come from a current player's maturation, or an inspirational acquisition from elsewhere. But locker-room leadership and skillful motivation will be essential for getting the most out of D.C.'s diverse collection of talent.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.