Coming off a tough 1-0 loss to the conference-leading Columbus Crew, D.C. United players and coaches are surprisingly upbeat this week as they prepare for Saturday's matchup with the MetroStars.
"I don't think we're too down, because we created just as many chances as they had," says defender Bryan Namoff, "even with 10 men. We're not suffering too badly from the loss -- I think we're fairly confident."
Ryan Nelsen's 44th-minute ejection put the Black-and-Red behind the 8-ball, but they still took the game to Columbus and were narrowly denied an equalizer by several scintillating saves from Crew goalkeeper Jon Busch.
While United might feel victimized by some questionable decisions from referee Jair Marrufo, there has been little in the way of finger-pointing during this week's practice sessions.
"This is a new week," says head coach Peter Nowak. "We cannot feel sorry for ourselves, we have to move forward. What do we have to say? The referee didn't score the goal -- we made a mistake and they scored a goal from the free kick.
"What's really on my mind is that we gave up four goals to Columbus this season. We played them four times and gave up four goals: three of them from free kicks and one of them from the penalty spot. This really shows that if we are organized and if we don't make the same mistakes that we did, then we can play against them pretty good. So I expect that we'll meet them at some point in the playoffs."
The biggest hangover from the Columbus loss is the impending loss of three critical players: Nelsen and Alecko Eskandarian to suspension, and Jaime Moreno to injury.
Moreno limped off in the 25th minute with a hamstring strain, robbing United of his playmaking ability and talismanic presence. But Nowak is optimistic about his prized striker's recovery, and expects him to travel to New Jersey this weekend.
"We'll see what Jaime's status is going to be," he says. "It's pretty promising. There's still a couple of days left to observe the situation and see what we can do about it."
If Moreno can't play, it creates an offensive conundrum for Nowak, and might force him to use a less-experienced attacker. But Nowak saw his outlook change considerably on Wednesday night, when United hammered Guatemalan side Municipal 6-0 in a friendly at RFK Stadium. Santino Quaranta started at forward alongside Jason Thompson, and in his first action of the season, scored a pair of goals.
"If Jaime doesn't play, we're not going to have a striker on the field, a real striker, but I still feel comfortable with these guys," Nowak said. "There's many options. ... They're still young players, but they have pretty good ability to play in this league, so we have to give them a chance at some point."
Nowak said before the game the match against Municipal would provide some answers -- and he got them.
"I'm very happy for these youngsters," he said. "They showed up today and had a great mentality and actually could play. If you believe in them and give them a chance, they still believe in the work we do and they still believe in what they can do and how they can perform."
The loss at Columbus extended United's 2004 road woes, bringing their away record to 1-8-5 on the season. But veteran Earnie Stewart, who came on in place of Moreno, rejects any talk of a mental block.
"It's not like we go to away games and we pack it in, or we lose in the last minute or anything like that," said Stewart. "Sometimes we get unlucky, but I really don't feel that it's in everybody's head out there. We try to go out every single time and make something positive happen, and that's the way it should be."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.