WASHINGTON - Circumstances have rendered D.C. United's final regular season game irrelevant to conference standings or playoff position, but the Black-and-Red will nonetheless have plenty to think about when they host Columbus at RFK Stadium on Saturday night.
So coaches and players alike are eager to put last week's indifferent performance in a 2-1 loss to the MetroStars behind them, and there is one prominent veteran eyeing an elusive individual honor as well.
"We obviously have to get sharper," said goalkeeper Nick Rimando. "Last game wasn't our best, and we know that. I think it's better for it to happen in the regular season than in the playoffs. We know what we did last year to win the whole thing. We have one more game until the playoffs and we want to try to get on a roll."
The issue of momentum is on everyone's mind, especially in light of last year's strong late-season run when United rolled into the postseason having won five of their last six matches.
"It's very important to make sure that we set the standard, set the tone before the playoffs start," said D.C. head coach Peter Nowak. "We know we play Chicago, so the series is wide open. We just want to have a good game and finish the regular season on a high note."
For his part, captain Jaime Moreno has one more chance to chase down New England's Taylor Twellman for the Budweiser MLS Golden Boot, one of the few MLS honors to elude the Bolivian legend. Technically, he won the award in 1997 when it recognized the league's leading goalscorer, but that year Preki narrowly edged out Moreno for overall points to win the honor of scoring champion, and he wants to avoid similar disappointment this time.
"In '97 I was close to it, but it was one point and I didn't get it," said Moreno. "I'm sure it's very important for my career, but I always feel like things happen for a reason. If I get the opportunity to win it, I think I will. Now that I'm really close, I'm going to fight for it."
Nowak is quick to lavish praise on his most experienced player, who took last year's startling late-career renaissance to a new level this season with 15 goals and seven assists while also taking on an increased leadership role.
"He did great as a captain," said Nowak. "He had different responsibilities last year - he came back from the injury. Now he showed the game and showed the people what Jaime Moreno is all about. As D.C. United captain, he motivates these guys every single day. He leads by example."
The second-year head coach also threw down a challenge to those who vote on end-of-season league honors, recalling last year's surprising choice of Amado Guevara as Honda MLS Most Valuable Player. Twellman has been widely predicted to take home the award for 2005.
"I'm pretty disappointed that (Moreno) is not considered as a league MVP," said Nowak. "I think last year he fully deserved it, and this year, with all the goals he scored, he is not in the mix for this award.
"I thought he was very important to this group, in the last stretch especially, before we qualified for the playoffs, to make sure that everything was set in the locker room and everyone is on the same page. Jaime is a guy who always wants to win the team trophy. He doesn't care too much about the individual stuff. So for him, I'm sure it's important to win the MLS Cup, nothing else."
Despite the fact that United's first-round playoff series begins in Chicago on Friday, Nowak is focused on making sure of his team's preparedness and seems little inclined to rest many starters against the Crew.
"You cannot just take the guys off the field saying, 'We're going to rest you and make sure that we're going to be ready for the playoffs,'" he said. "Because this is not a car, when you're going to turn the switch off and on and say, 'OK, now is the time to do it.'"
But the RFK faithful might get their first glimpse of late-season signing Lucio Filomeno, a well-traveled striker whose arrival late last month marked the latest addition to United's growing collection of skilled Argentineans. He has dealt with the difficult task of adjusting to a new setting while working his way back to match fitness, even as he recovers from a knee injury, but might be used as a substitute on Saturday.
"Maybe I will not be 100 percent," said the former Inter Milan player. "So I have to live with that at first, and concentrate on going (forward) with the injury. But at the same time I have to (get to) know my teammates, what the coach wants - so many things."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.