they racked up seven goals in four playoff games last year -- continues in '05, MLS defenders will dread matchups with the Black-and-Red. But now the trio must prove that its 2004 success was no fluke. Their fearsome reputation may suffer if Eskandarian's clinical finishing goes cold, if Moreno suffers a recurrence of his past back and hamstring injuries, or if Gomez fails to adapt to the daily grind of a full season.
Eskandarian dramatically raised public perceptions -- and expectations -- with last season's breakout 10-goal performance. Now he will look to prove his quality with more scoring, though he may also expect to receive more bruising treatment from defenders around the league.
"I think teams are probably going to expect that it's going to come," said Eskandarian. "They're going to be more prepared for it, so we've got to find different ways and combinations to get at them."
A late-season addition from Argentine side Arsenal de Sarandi, Gomez's impressive 2004 performances belied the fact that he was fighting an uphill battle to reach match fitness and rarely played a full 90 minutes. Nowak is undoubtedly pleased to have an extended preseason to ramp up Gomez's conditioning, prepare him for the rigors of a full MLS season and further cement his understanding with the strikers.
"It just keeps getting better," Eskandarian says of the trio's chemistry. "Last year we only did it for six weeks or something like that, because Christian came late. Now that we have the whole preseason to work together, I think it's only going to improve our understanding of each other."
That understanding will be a key component of United's title defense.
OTHER STRIKERS TO WATCH
Santino Quaranta: Having once claimed the distinction of being the league's youngest-ever All-Star (before the arrival of Freddy Adu), Quaranta's rise to stardom has been delayed by a string of debilitating injuries over the past three years. Based on some crisp preseason performances, the Baltimore native finally seems to have shaken off his poor luck and could push for a place in the starting 11. His size, speed and finishing abilities are most suited to a striking role, but D.C.'s coaching staff also seems to be considering Quaranta for a spot on the right wing.
Jason Thompson: A promising youngster picked up from Dallas in midseason last year, Thompson's raw talent may need a bit more seasoning, perhaps in the new MLS reserve league. He has worked hard in preseason and made an impression at the Tom Fitzgerald Memorial Soccer Festival when he dropped into midfield and combined with Nick Van Sicklen to set up the opening goal against the U-17 national team.
Matt Nickell: United's top pick in the MLS Supplemental Draft, Nickell blew away a host of school records during an impressive Drake University career. Creating such success at the professional level will take time, and he will likely have to pay his dues on the reserve team.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.