all comprehensive demolitions of quality teams.
Coach Peter Nowak's 3-5-2 system emphasizes possession and aggressive counterattacking, keyed by combination play between energetic frontrunners and the advanced midfielder. Of late, this has meant a tight understanding between Jaime Moreno, Alecko Eskandarian and playmaker Christian Gomez.
Unfortunately, that formula has misfired dramatically on the road, where United's output sinks to a miserly 0.80 goals per game, worst in the league. United have often outplayed their opponents and dominated possession for long stretches in these matches, but time after time have failed to seize the advantage.
Inconsistent finishing and an earnest commitment to positive play have at times given United's opponents openings to steal points -- indicative of what veteran Earnie Stewart has described as a "naïve" attitude.
But there were no such qualms for the ruthless side that stole a 1-0 result from the MetroStars in New Jersey last weekend, despite the absence of Moreno, Eskandarian and captain Ryan Nelsen. United put on a textbook display of what the English call "smash-and-grab" soccer, sneaking an early goal off Freddy Adu's deflected shot and clinging to the lead with tenacious defending and counterattacking.
"We've had a lot of guys step up and fill roles," says midfielder Ben Olsen. "Look at last game. Nelsen's out, Jaime and Alecko are out -- three pretty big guns for us this year, and we sneak a 1-0 result. (It) was a good test -- it was a playoff atmosphere, pretty intense, a good crowd, and it meant something, getting points at a crucial time."
The Black-and-Red allowed twice as many shots and committed more than twice as many fouls as the Metros. But, thanks to an inspired defensive performance from Ezra Hendrickson and few timely saves from goalkeeper Nick Rimando, United gained their second away win of 2004 and a tremendous confidence booster heading towards the postseason.
Nelsen rejects the idea that United have abandoned their attacking philosophy.
"Just because a team sits back doesn't mean its defensive," he said. "It's just a style of play -- when you drop back, you've now got 50 yards of space to attack into. When you go high up the field, you generally don't have that space to attack into, so it's crowded.
"It's a perfect scenario. (The other team) starts to panic, they start to throw defenders forward, and all of a sudden there are huge amounts of space opening up for our attackers. You ask any attacker what he loves best, and he'll say 'space to run into.' People will say it's defensive -- I always say it's defending to attack, in a positive way."
This opportunistic style is tailor-made for must-win situations like the playoffs, giving cause for optimism from one of only two players left on the United roster who were part of the early dynasty that won three MLS Cups in four seasons.
"I'm confident in this team, now more than I was at midseason," he said. "You get that feeling through a championship run where you know you're going to win. You look around at your teammates, and you know that you're going to fight for each other. I'm starting to feel that with this team. It's contagious."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to approval by Major League Soccer or its clubs.