After months of injuries, inconsistency, Freddy Adu-inspired media hype and transfer speculation, D.C. United have now finally found a modicum of stability and coherence, and it shows in their results.
The Black-and-Red have seen several injury crises hit this season, at one point even resorting to an emergency call-up from a northern Virginia minor league side. But now 23 members of United's 24-man roster are participating in training, including Eliseo Quintanilla and Santino Quaranta, recent returnees from long-term rehab stints.
"We have (a lot) of healthy bodies right now, and the players are starting to compete for their spot," says head coach Peter Nowak, "and it looks good."
Quintanilla, a young attacker who tallied three goals and three assists and saw some attention from the El Salvador national team last season, broke his fibula during preseason workouts and eventually had to undergo surgery in June. He has finally rejoined the squad and may yet see match action in 2004.
The media circus that has intermittently imposed itself on United ever since the drafting of teen phenom Adu has quieted significantly. Publicly, players and staff repeatedly played down the effects of the early-season hype, but there is little question that the extra attention ruffled some feathers in the locker room.
When midfielder Tim Lawson was signed on Aug. 18, United's much-discussed in-season transfer activity came to a close. Argentinian midfielder Christian Gomez was the main catch of a 2004 crop that also included Ezra Hendrickson, Nana Kuffour and Jason Thompson.
Club president Kevin Payne and the United front office's constant efforts to strengthen the roster were lauded, though it sometimes had an unsettling effect on the remainder of the squad.
Now, with a stable lineup and several months of Nowak's tutelage being brought to bear, United looks as poised and purposeful as they have all season. Nowak's emphasis on possession, quick combination play and attacking flair has molded an attractive, aggressive side that could frighten the entire league when on form.
"The whole team's attitude and mentality is good right now," says the former Polish international. "How we play and the way we play the last couple of weeks is the sum of all the little things we talked about the whole season."
Nowak has stressed a team concept that demands high work rate and constant pressure in all areas of the field, but forward play is central to the theme. The naïvete and poor finishing seen earlier in the season has given way to a more cut-throat approach.
Six goals in the last two games have led to back-to-back wins against Dallas and Chicago, spearheaded by top-notch performances from strikers Jaime Moreno and Alecko Eskandarian. Nowak praises their success, as well as the emerging genius of attacking midfielder Gomez, within that team-oriented framework.
"Offensively it's very good movement with these front three," he said. "But I think the whole group understands right now that the way we play starts with the forwards, how important those three are and how fast we can utilize them on the field.
"We have to find them early, to get them on the run. In the last couple of weeks, with the balls we won and played to them, they can do something special, this is no question. But they also have help from our midfield line and our back line."
After drawing some early media criticism for his single-minded approach, Nowak is clearly pleased with his team's progress.
"You have to give the credit to our guys, to the whole group," he said. "Right now we are really starting to see the work pay off. The team understands when to initiate the pressure, when to drop, all the little things, getting the pieces together.
"It's like a puzzle: if you have a vision, you're going to make this puzzle work. At the moment, we have the puzzle together -- every piece is in place."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.