For many of the players and coaches around Major League Soccer, the All-Star break provides a slight relief from the daily stress and pressure of life in professional sports. There may not be a lot of time off from training, watching tapes and preparing for opponents, but at least mentally, there's one weekend without the full responsibility of a league match. However, with a variety of injuries besieging United's current roster, the All-Star break might be his most important week of the season.
D.C. United has one free weekend to get their ailing players back into playing condition, and considering that many of them haven't played since the last league match on July 17 vs. Los Angeles, several of those players will actually go three weeks between matches. Basically, the All-Star Game gives D.C. United a much-needed period of recovery for a large percentage of their key players. And United will need all the healthy players they can get as they prepare for what will be a dramatic final three months of the season.
The standings in the Eastern Conference are very tight right now. With 12 matches remaining, (Columbus has 2 games in hand with 14 games left), only eight points separate the top spot from the cellar and each team has at least five matches remaining against Eastern Conference opponents. That means that any team that gets hot will certainly be able to surge up the standings and any slump could mean the difference between home field advantage in the playoffs and missing out on the post-season all together. For D.C. United, the schedule is particularly interesting.
United has 12 matches left - two road games against Western Conference opponents, and then nine out of their final 10 against the East. This strange twist in the scheduling places United in a precarious position. Clearly, United controls their own destiny: win games late in the season, make the playoffs. But by that same token, nine out of their last 10 opponents will have a chance to create a 6-point swing in the standings by beating D.C. That's why staying healthy is so important.
Every team deals with injuries. Unfortunately for D.C., everybody got hurt at the same time. Head coach Peter Nowak has utilized his reserve players very well all season. Throughout the year, the reserves have made the most of their opportunities on the field, with Josh Gros, Alecko Eskandarian, and Troy Perkins being the most notable examples. The problem this weekend was that all of the reserves were on the field together. Kevin Ara and Nana Kuffour made their first MLS starts this weekend, but they were put in a very difficult position. Had they been in the starting line-up with the rest of United's regular starting 11, they would have been much more likely to have an impact on the game. But with the unfair circumstances this weekend, the combined inexperience across the board for United sealed their fate against Dallas.
Nowak is not the type of coach to allow his players to mope in self-pity and he doesn't make excuses. So now, United puts the Dallas match behind them and re-focuses on the task ahead. Jaime Moreno is among several members of the Black-and-Red with have the honor of playing in the All-Star Game this weekend, with the added pleasure of taking the field in their home stadium. This celebration of American soccer will be held in the home of American soccer at RFK Stadium and should be a great chance to re-focus on the final stretch with a clear head. But even if all the players and coaches return from the All-Star week with clear minds, it won't do that much good unless they also have healthy legs, abdomens and groins.
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.