After 12 away games this season, D.C. United still have only one road victory and, while it may appear that the results on the road for United have all but sealed their doom, a closer look shows that the future for United may not be as bleak as it seems.
It is important to remember that when playing on the road in an intra-conference match there are six points hanging in the balance. This past weekend, D.C. United entered the match at New England with a three-point lead on the Revolution in the standings. A win for United would have increased their lead to six points; a loss would have brought the Revs into a tie for third place. The draw was not a bad result for D.C. because they maintain a three-point lead with one less week in the season for New England to make up the difference.
Although it is a little frustrating for United not to be winning on the road, the two draws over the past two weeks have in some ways bided a little time for United. Ryan Nelsen is close to returning to the lineup for after abdominal surgery about a month ago. Since United haven't lost a match in four weeks, they haven't slipped in the standings and they will still be in a position to make a final surge when Nelsen gets back on the field. In the last match, Ezra Hendrickson was still nursing a hamstring strain and head coach Peter Nowak elected to allow the defender time to rest, thus relying on Bryan Namoff, Mike Petke and Brandon Prideaux to handle the Revolution attack. Alecko Eskandarian's recently sprained ankle kept him out of the match in New England, a game in which his knack around the goal could have made a big difference. Eskandarian could also return from his injury in the next couple of weeks and a fully healthy United squad has the potential to change everything.
D.C. United haven't had all their players healthy in a long time, but with the critical stretch of the season approaching, the day when Nowak has his entire roster to choose from may not be that far away. Besides the return of talented players, having everyone available adds the important element of depth which D.C. United has done without for most of the season. With the addition of Nelsen, Hendrickson and Eskandarian to the available roster from this past weekend, there will be a number of quality players coming off the bench.
When D.C. United is totally healthy, they have five defenders who have started at least seven games this season. Of those five, most likely only three would start, turning two quality defenders into reserves and providing excellent options for any defensive substitutions. United has usually played with five midfielders, and again there aren't enough positions in the starting line-up for everybody. Christian Gomez and Freddy Adu can each play in the midfield or as strikers, but with Jaime Moreno and Alecko Eskandarian both leading the team in goals, it would appear that the only place in the starting lineup for Adu and Gomez will be in the midfield, which means that there are five spots for six players.
Very early in the year, D.C. United had great depth that was illustrated by the continual high level of play when subs were made. United have a good chance to get back to that game plan of using their best 13 or 14 players to play with ultimate energy and intensity for 90 minutes. Like with any team, all the players for D.C. United want to be in the starting line-up.
Some will be forced into a role of coming off the bench, and those players have the chance to make a much more immediate impact when they enter the game. The Eastern Conference is so tightly packed from top to bottom that, at this point, there is very little separating any of the teams. As the push for the playoffs continues, there will be an increasing number of small factors that make the difference between the top seed and the team that doesn't make the playoffs. Team depth will surely be one of those factors, and if D.C. can manage to get healthy and stay healthy, they will have a leg up on the competition over the final seven weeks.
Tony Limarzi provides live match commentary for all D.C. United games in English on WMET. He also contributes a column to dcunited.com, which runs every Monday.