D.C. found title defense challenging

In the constantly-evolving, parity-obsessed world of Major League Soccer, one year can seem like a lifetime -- just ask D.C. United.

Last November the most storied club in MLS was basking in the Southern California sun with the Alan I. Rothenberg trophy in hand yet again, having claimed its fourth MLS Cup victory with a 3-2 win against the Kansas City Wizards at The Home Depot Center. But this time around, the defending champs found themselves watching the action from home, wracked with regret and facing an uncertain offseason in the drab Washington winter.

"It was a long season," said head coach Peter Nowak after his side's stunning 4-0 Eastern Conference Semifinal Series loss to the Chicago Fire. "There were some good things, some bad things, (but) at the end of the day, I'm sure the whole team is very disappointed."

From a broader perspective, the Black-and-Red repeatedly proved their quality throughout 2005, beating every MLS side in league play and setting a high standard of fluid, attacking-oriented possession play. However, inconsistency and a failure to deliver in clutch situations haunted D.C., leading to premature exits from four major tournaments: the CONCACAF Champions' Cup, the U.S. Open Cup, the Copa Sudamericana and the MLS Cup Playoffs.

Admittedly, United's troubles do not match those of their counterparts in San Jose and Kansas City, whose very location is subject to change. But the 2005 squad failed to live up to the high expectations set by last year's delirious championship run, compelling this ambitious club to rethink its approach on several levels.

"Very disappointing, very disappointing," said midfielder Dema Kovalenko. "Now we've got to go forward, hopefully. The question is: What are they going to do? Maybe they're going to make changes."

Kovalenko is a good example. One of Nowak's most trusted players and a constant source of energy and intensity, his high salary alone may nonetheless force D.C.'s front office to re-evaluate his future, or request a contract restructuring. The same goes for longtime fixture Ben Olsen, leaving both players and club with tough choices to make.

"I think it's a disappointing season, from the standpoint that we (picked up) 55 points, but at the end of the day, nothing to show for it," said Kovalenko. "We went to four tournaments, we lost all four. So it's not a good season, and I think we just have to do whatever they decide we've got to do."

For many of United's dedicated supporters, their team's abject failure against the Fire left a foul taste that threatened to erase an entire season's accomplishments. Like the year before, the Black-and-Red's form had fluctuated over the early months of the campaign before coming into sharp focus as fall approached, prompting observers to rate United as a top contender for postseason achievement.

But the year's humiliating conclusion raised concerns that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago, questions that were only exacerbated by the club's controversial handling of the Freddy Adu situation in the wake of his complaints about playing time on the eve of the playoffs.

In terms of leadership and overall direction, it became painfully clear that the 2005 squad lacked some of the spirit and resilience that the 2004 championship side displayed in spades. Veterans Ryan Nelsen and Earnie Stewart were replaced in the first 11, but their inspirational influence in the locker room was much more difficult to duplicate. Though one of the most savvy, experienced players in MLS, captain Jaime Moreno is a quiet personality who leads by example.

"We're going to make whatever changes necessary to make this team better, and whoever is going to show up in the first 11 are going to be my best players."
-- D.C. coach Peter Nowak
After the loss to the Fire, Nowak finally revealed his long-suppressed frustrations at this aspect of his current side.

"From last year's experience, we know that every little thing we do has a purpose, and the team followed the pact," he said. "(In 2004) there were no distractions whatsoever, from anybody. I think the role models in our team were much better affiliated with the team, and put some pressure on the young guys. Right now the structure is different, so if you cannot have a leader on the field, you have to have a leader on the bench."

However, that hard-nosed, hands-on style backfired when it came to Adu, arguably the league's most visible player. The talented youngster's journey from teenage prodigy to consistent professional seemed to be progressing smoothly in his second year with United. But Nowak's decision to keep him on the substitutes' bench after some strong late-season performances led to a public outburst about his frustrations, including the admission that a move elsewhere was on his mind.

That set off a war of wills that saw Adu suspended for the first leg of the Chicago series, not to mention a storm of negative publicity and widespread speculation about the teen's future.

While team president Kevin Payne insists that he "can't imagine him anywhere else," some sections of the media have practically booked the 16-year-old's ticket out of town already, with Real Salt Lake and the MetroStars rumored as likely destinations. The ongoing controversy wore on Nowak and the entire organization, culminating with Nowak's emotional words in the season's final press conference.

"Maybe we're going to finish this story, because I am getting sick and tired of it," he said. "I am not the priest here to satisfy everyone, all right? And I will go my way -- even if it's sometimes wrong, or you're thinking it's wrong. I think it's the right way, because we have had success. And we're not going to stop.

"Is it the hard way? Yes. And we're going to start again in February. We're going to make whatever changes necessary to make this team better, and whoever is going to show up in the first 11 are going to be my best players. I don't care what the name is going to be."

For fans in what MLS Commissioner Don Garber calls "our most authentic, most passionate market," the answers simply can't come soon enough.

Charles Boehm is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.

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