WASHINGTON - Wednesday's thrilling, come-from-behind victory against the Chicago Fire was a massive result for D.C. United, snapping a three-game winless streak and jumpstarting the team's dormant attack. But following the match, the Black-and-Red sounded more chastened than cheerful.
"I don't want to say it was a good game," said midfielder Dema Kovalenko, who put in an impressive performance on the right wing against his old team. "It was a good win for us, but we've got to get better defensively, we've got to get tighter. We've got a lot of things to work on."
Despite having just clawed their way out of the Eastern Conference cellar, United have set their sights considerably higher - as their passionate fans would expect from the MLS Cup champions. Appropriately enough, the target in their crosshairs is rolling into RFK Stadium this weekend: the first-place, undefeated New England Revolution.
D.C. will have to quickly remedy the defensive weaknesses on display against Chicago if they want to challenge the league's best team. Slipshod marking and lack of focus gave the Fire an early 2-0 lead that required a ferocious fightback, and the entire team is aware that such mistakes could be fatal against the Revs.
"I would say they're a better offensive team, and defensive team, than Chicago," said left winger Josh Gros. "We just need to fix a few things on defense and we'll be all right."
Said Kovalenko: "We've got to get rid of the mistakes in the back. It's nobody's fault. We've got to communicate better, we've got to move to each other better."
Center back Bobby Boswell has developed steadily throughout his first season, and seems well-equipped to be a long-term replacement for Ryan Nelsen. But he has not yet matched the vocal communication provided by "Nellie," United's former captain and team leader. While it would be unrealistic to expect such outspokenness from a young rookie, goalkeeper Nick Rimando has increased his expectations.
"Today it felt like there wasn't as much communication," said the veteran netminder after Wednesday's match. "Bobby's young ... He needs to start talking a lot more, and he knows that. He gets caught drifting, he ball-watches a lot, but he's been learning and he's going to take control of that little by little."
Boswell acknowledged the breakdowns that led to Chicago's early goals. "On the first one, Nate (Jaqua) beat me on a header," he said. "It was a miscommunication in the back, and an unlucky deflection that went in our net - a freak goal. The second goal was also a little bit of a miscommunication, I got off my man because I thought Nicky was calling near post. I should've stuck with him."
The former Florida International University standout possesses an astute tactical awareness, and has proven to be a quick study over the course of the season, recovering well from his mistakes - as he did against the Fire, later scoring his first-ever MLS goal to win the match for his side.
The improbable finish suggests that the squad may finally be forging its identity after an early season marked by fits and starts.
"What I'm happy about is that this is the sign of a good team," said Kovalenko. "We went down 2-0, came back, went down again 3-2, came back and still won the game. What makes our team good is, we're not alone. We work for each other. Anybody can score - look at Bobby."
United relied on that resourcefulness to beat New England on penalty kicks in the Eastern Conference Final at RFK last November, but the magic has been missing in two losses to the Revs this year. D.C. clearly considers Saturday's match a must-win.
"Last year was last year, but this year they've got our number," said Rimando. "We've got to go out there and get three points, especially at home."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.