New England Revolution center back Darrius Barnes said the Revs are raring to face D.C. United on Friday night after nursing injuries, resting their bodies and eating Easter ham last weekend.
"We had a little break early in the season, but I think everyone is eager to get back and get back to the competition," Barnes said. "We're just starting to get healthy. We're eager to get down to D.C. and start playing again."
The Revs have struggled to find healthy bodies so far this season. The numbers will be boosted by Steve Ralston's likely return to the starting lineup after shaking off the lingering effects of a quadriceps injury and Stephane Assengue's availability off the bench.
Ralston's return doesn't mean the end of the injury issues. Jeff Larentowicz is listed as questionable with a hip injury. Matt Reis' right knee continues to limit his practice time, so he may have to settle for a place on the bench with the in-form Brad Knighton proving a capable stand-in. Kheli Dube might not play as a precautionary measure after suffering a concussion against FC Dallas on April 4. Mauricio Castro (hamstring), Kevin Alston (hamstring), Taylor Twellman (neck) and Gabriel Badilla (back) remain unavailable.
The continued injuries mean the Revs are likely to employ the four-man back line that has yielded just two goals in its first three games.
"We're away from home," Revs coach Steve Nicol said. "First and foremost, we want to have a good start and be solid. Then we can build from there."
Starting off on the right foot will prove particularly important against a United team that has scored first in each of its four games this season. In three of those games, United have eventually coughed up the lead and dropped points. Ralston said his team will need to start quickly to break that trend.
"We have to be ready to match their intensity and their level," Ralston said.
New England has struggled to find good starts and profitable finishes at RFK Stadium over the years. The Revolution hold a 6-16-3 all-time mark against United in the District of Columbia.
"D.C. will be a tough test," Reis said. "It's a tough place to play. We've had such a good rivalry with them. The fans are great fans. They'll let the opposing team know what they feel about them."
One United player in particular has started the season in a rich vein of form. Luciano Emilio has scored in three consecutive matches. Nicol said the Brazilian marksman would be one for the Revs defense to watch even if he wasn't scoring consistently.
"That's what he is," Nicol said. "He is a goal scorer. Whether he's scored in the previous game or not, you have to keep an eye on him. That's what he's all about."
Returning playmaker Christian Gomez hasn't enjoyed similar success as he attempts to reclaim his form after a difficult stint in Colorado last season. Even though Gomez hasn't reached the heights of his MVP campaign in 2006, the United playmaker will merit constant attention, according to Reis.
"Gomez is definitely someone who has burned us in the past," Reis said. "We have to keep an eye on him because he can bring other players in with his passing and he can also do it by himself. Those are the keys."
Nicol said his side will have to keep a close eye on Gomez -- as well as Emilio and Jaime Moreno -- because his late runs into the box can often prove difficult to defend.
"He's a great finisher," Nicol said. "It's the timing of his runs that kill you. I don't care who you've got on your back line. When somebody's timing their runs, it's really hard to defend against."
As potent as United can be offensively, D.C. has proven somewhat rickety defensively. Reis thinks his side can mitigate United's attacking troika by pushing up the field and maintaining possession.
"We can get after them," Reis said. "We can cause them problems. If we're putting enough pressure on them so that those guys don't see the ball that much, that's the best way to take them out of the game."
Kyle McCarthy is a contributor to MLSnet.com.