In urgent need of both points and momentum, D.C. United hope that a renewed fighting spirit and commitment to team defending can help them settle a score with the visiting Kansas City Wizards on Saturday night.
The Wizards hosted D.C. in the regular season opener for both teams four months ago, and took full advantage of United's preoccupation with their CONCACAF Champions' Cup campaign with a 2-0 win in the first-ever MLS contest at CommunityAmerica Ballpark. Goals from Claudio Lopez and Ivan Trujillo sent United home empty-handed and helped set off the club's prolonged spring slump.
"I think we owe them a little something from the first game of the season," said D.C. midfielder Clyde Simms. "We went down there and I don't know if we were too concentrated on the CONCACAF tournament or not, but they got us pretty good. Hopefully there will be a little revenge in the back of our minds coming into this game."
Kansas City might relish their prospects of victimizing the Black-and-Red again, given United's injury woes and the wide disparity in the two sides' recent form. A calamitous SuperLiga excursion has sent D.C. stumbling to an unprecedented four consecutive losses at RFK Stadium, while the Wizards have quietly built a seven-game unbeaten streak in league play with a youthful squad balanced by veterans like Lopez and U.S. international Jimmy Conrad.
"They're healthy right now. They've got, for the most part, their entire team," said United assistant coach Chad Ashton this week. "They've got guys who are actually stepping into positions, and taking positions from older guys. I watched their entire game against Chicago at home and it was a very tightly contended contest, there weren't a lot of chances during the game. The week before, they were up 2-0 in Columbus and actually then gave away three and then came back to tie it. So in two weeks you saw them play two very different games."
D.C. would prefer that Saturday's contest more closely resembles the K.C.-Chicago match -- though scoreless draws have been a foreign concept for United this season and with key defenders Gonzalo Martinez and Gonzalo Peralta missing out due to suspension and injury, respectively, the back line will have to adjust on the fly this weekend.
The main beneficiary could be Ivan Guerrero, newly acquired in a trade with San Jose. Depending on head coach Tom Soehn's comfort level with his newest player, the Honduran international could step straight into the left back role so Marc Burch can pair with Devon McTavish in central defense. Even if he doesn't start on Saturday, the versatile Guerrero's arrival is welcome news for his new teammates.
"We're not very stable yet, especially in our defense, and I think really good players are always welcome to help out the team," said striker Luciano Emilio. "At times like this, when Peralta is injured and now that Martinez has a red card and a suspension, we need more depth in our defense. We've been letting in too many goals and we still haven't gotten a shutout [in league play]. So I think that's what we really need to focus on right now."
The United attack has also gone off the boil of late, however. Bereft of Marcelo Gallardo's playmaking abilities and Santino Quaranta's energy, fewer chances have been created and matters will not be helped by the recurrence of Francis Doe's foot infection -- the Liberian's scoring form has offered a rare bright spot this month. With so many missing faces up top, the Black-and-Red realize that they'll have to be more opportunistic around goal against Kansas City.
"It's going to take a team effort, missing the guys that we are, so we just have to be smart going into the game, defensively and offensively: knowing our limitations and sticking to our game plan," said Simms. "We know more than likely we're going to have less chances to score, so we're going to have to take advantage of those."
While this matchup might not typically inspire the passion surrounding other conference rivalries, present circumstances could spark a bit of desperation as both teams look to rise in the tightly-packed East.
"We can't afford to lose right now," noted Fred, who could be tasked with Gallardo's central attacking role on Saturday. "We're tied with 22 points with [three] other teams -- we really need to win now to get up in the standings."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.