D.C. United striker Jaime Moreno's startling revival continues to pace the Black-and-Red in 2004, as they now look to extend their two-game winning streak against Eastern Conference leaders Columbus on Saturday.
Widely considered a spent force after a litany of crippling injuries in recent years, Moreno started only seven games for the MetroStars last year. United took what some might have called a considerable gamble in re-signing the former MLS Golden Boot Award Winner over the offseason.
Moreno has responded with a team-leading 27 points, firing home seven goals and dishing out a league-leading 13 assists, while missing only two matches.
You could say the gamble paid off.
"I feel blessed," says Moreno. "I've always got to give thanks to a lot of people who still believe in me. It's been a nice season so far, with all the hard work that I've put together. It's as if I was born again to play football. It's what I love to do, and hopefully I'm going to go as long as I can."
During D.C.'s dynasty era of the late '90s, Moreno played a more traditional striker's role, latching onto the incisive, defense-splitting passes of playmaker Marco Etcheverry and scoring heaps of goals-16 in 1997, 16 in 1998, 10 in 1999.
Now he is United's top possession wizard, holding the ball masterfully and setting off marauding counterattacks with his keen vision and quick combination play. Moreno's experience and refined tactical understanding have more than compensated for any loss in pace, making him harder than ever to defend.
Just as importantly, his presence in the locker room has provided an important example for a youthful squad. His strike partner Alecko Eskandarian, after spending almost all of last season on the bench, has blossomed into a top-class goalscorer who thrives on Moreno's distribution.
"There's nothing better," says Eskandarian of playing alongside Moreno. "Playing with him, learning from him. He's a class professional, a class guy, so it's really a blessing to have him. I feel bad for defenders."
But Moreno plays down talk about his evolution as a playmaker.
"I don't think my game has changed so much," says the former Bolivian international. "It's just that we don't have Marco (Etcheverry), who was a guy who used to play long balls that I had to chase.
"It was a little bit different style of football, but I probably get more involved with the ball now, turning and facing people. I always loved that. But like I say, it was a different game, and now you've got to do more dirty work, and I'm having a lot of fun."
A telling sign of his importance to D.C.: Moreno set up every goal United scored in the last two weeks, during which time United has put together their only winning streak of the season. Now, with their impending trip to Columbus, the Black-and-Red look to continue that streak while simulataneously breaking another: the Crew's 13-game unbeaten run.
United have only won once on the road all year, but Moreno feels that the team's current confidence has erased any self-doubt.
"I wouldn't say it's completely done," he says of D.C.'s road block, "but we know where we are and what we need [to do]. We're done with all the excuses, and we've just got to go play football.
"This whole team is playing with one, two touches, and that's contagious. The last game, I think, was fast soccer and that's just something that naturally comes to you. We want to set the tone and try to play our game. If we do that I think we'll be fine."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.