MLS Cup champion D.C. United enter the first leg of Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions' Cup match possessing an air of businesslike confidence. Proud of their 2004 title and eager to defend it, the squad has hustled its way through a crisp preseason that included stops in Bradenton, Fla. and Honolulu, Hawaii.
Despite the fact that the season is getting underway almost a full month earlier than last year, players, coaches and staff alike agree that the team is much further along than at the same point in 2004.
"Our starting point, in every sense, is light years ahead of last year," says team president and CEO Kevin Payne. "Instead of (coaches) Tommy (Soehn) and Peter (Nowak) needing to get people to buy into a way of doing things, which they spent a good part of last year doing, we just really work on improving."
The strike force, already one of the most fearsome in MLS, has only improved its understanding during the preseason and should continue its prolific scoring in 2005. Forwards Jaime Moreno and Alecko Eskandarian will continue the impressive partnership with attacking midfielder Christian Gomez that terrorized back lines during last year's playoff run, while holding midfielders Ben Olsen and Brian Carroll have shown an increased confidence going into the attacking third during preseason.
"I just think that every time in training, we go about it with a state of mind for learning," said Moreno. "We do what we can, we do what we know, and hopefully on Wednesday we'll show that."
Said Eskandarian: "I think the three of us are pretty dangerous up there, and we have a bunch of other guys that are pretty dangerous as well. There's no one person you can really key on."
Despite the loss of veteran winger Earnie Stewart in the offseason, United have no shortage of weaponry on the flanks. Second-year player Josh Gros has continued to improve after a breakout rookie season in '04 and seems likely to be an everyday starter this season. Freddy Adu has emerged as the likely starter from a crowded field vying for the left wing position, where he looked quite dangerous in the final weeks of last season.
With skill and pace throughout the midfield, United should not lack for scoring opportunities. But the biggest question is at the other end of the field. The departure of center back Ryan Nelsen to Blackburn Rovers of the English Premiership leaves a gaping hole -- not only in terms of technical ability, but also leadership and poise on and off the field.
Mike Petke's strong return to form at the end of last season has earned him a new contract and the unenviable task of filling Nelsen's shoes in the middle, at least for now. The club is aggressively searching for a foreign center back, and has invited former Brazilian international Odvan Gomes Silva to train with the Black-and-Red this week.
Argentine Marcelo Kobistyj has also been working out with United with an eye towards solving the team's defensive dilemma, but for the time being, Petke will marshal the back line, flanked by Bryan Namoff and Brandon Prideaux. "I told Peter when he first came in two years ago that I'll play backup goalkeeper if that's the role he wants for me," said Petke. "It doesn't matter if I play in the middle or outside. When I know what position I'm playing, I'm going to get the job done."
"There has been a lot of discussion about Ryan (Nelsen) and Earnie (Stewart), but we cannot clone them. That's the point," said United coach Peter Nowak. "We're not going to find a guy with the same qualities as 'Nellie' or Earnie. We want to find someone that has similar qualities, but someone who is going to give us something special -- something special in the locker room and special on the field. As I said, the search is going to continue, and then we'll make a decision."
United players admit that they know very little about their opponents, Jamaica's Harbour View FC, and are predominantly concerned with maximizing their own performance.
"We're not worried about how they play or anything," says Petke. "If we come in and play the way we know how to, the rest will take care of itself."
Petke and starting goalkeeper Nick Rimando, along with Nowak, cited former MetroStars striker Fabian Taylor as the sole known entity on the Harbour View roster. Taylor should inspire unpleasant memories though, as he tore open the D.C. defense for two second-half goals on April 17 last year, earning the Metros their only 2004 win against United, a 3-2 result at the Meadowlands.
"We know that they have Fabian Taylor who played for the Metrostars last year. Like I said, the most important thing is we don't worry about the competition. We have to make our job easier by knowing that every game is important," said Nowak. "Even in the practice games and the scrimmages like today in practice are important to me because that lets me see who is ready and who is not. ... We do have to square away a couple of things tactically, but we're going to be ready." The final wild card in Wednesday's match: location, location, location. With RFK Stadium undergoing major remodeling in preparation for major league baseball's return to Washington, the game will be played at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, almost an hour's drive from the capital city.
With an approximate capacity of 4,000, the small stadium should provide an intimate setting and is expected to sell out. But an ominous forecast of severe winter weather could negatively impact a playing surface that has only recently shed a thick coat of snow. Such unpleasant conditions will hardly warm the hearts of the visitors from the Caribbean.
"From my end there is really no big difference between playing the first leg against New York, like we did in the first round of the playoffs last year, and playing Jamaica," Nowak said. "The crucial point -- no matter what competition, even in World Cup finals, playoff games, European Champions League, or UEFA Cup -- the first game is crucial.
"It's always like that. So we're going to do our job, and they'll be looking back saying, 'We had to do better in the first game. Now we have to come up with something special in the second game.' The first game is crucial and we're going to treat it with respect. But we'll be looking to win the first game.
"Advancing to the second round is our goal. We'll have to see the condition of the players, the condition of the field, and then adjust to the situation. It's always going to be like that," Nowak said. "But I'm not going to slow down. If it's 3-0 or 4-0, I'm going to be looking for another three goals. This is how you send a message, and how you win the game. It's not going to be easy, for sure."
United projected starters: Nick Rimando -- Bryan Namoff, Mike Petke, Brandon Prideaux -- Josh Gros, Brian Carroll, Ben Olsen, Christian Gomez, Freddy Adu -- Alecko Eskandarian, Jaime Moreno.
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.