D.C. United's MLS Cup defense begins in earnest this Friday, but at a time when stability and focus are paramount priorities for coach Peter Nowak and his staff, the club finds itself facing difficult questions both on and off the field.
Defensive consistency has been United's most pressing issue all season, and it takes on added importance going into a first-round playoff matchup with the Chicago Fire, who have scored more goals (10) against D.C. than any other team this year. Three of the four meetings between the clubs have been barnburners, as the sides exchanged 4-3 results in late June and combined for another five goals in United's 3-2 victory at Soldier Field in August.
"They've broken us down this whole year," said goalkeeper Nick Rimando. "So I guess we're going to try not to have a high-scoring game for our part, but we're going to try to find the goal as much as we can. They're a very attacking team, and they have some good forwards."
Incidentally, D.C. has never beaten Chicago in the postseason, as the Fire have accounted for half of the losses on United's otherwise outstanding 23-6 overall playoff record.
On top of those concerns, United has been less than overpowering in their last two matches, a 2-1 loss to the MetroStars and a 2-2 draw with Columbus, both at home and both against teams that D.C. has dominated in the past.
"I don't think we're worried," said midfielder Brian Carroll after Saturday's result. "I think we would prefer to have more momentum going into the playoffs, but the last two results are certainly going to be something in our minds for practice this upcoming week. We have to work harder and get sharper in order to get some results against Chicago."
Now, the team's preparation has been further complicated by some attention-grabbing remarks from United's most visible player, Freddy Adu.
After Tuesday's training session, the teenage phenom vented his considerable frustrations about his lack of playing time this season, and even broached the possibility of moving elsewhere in search of better opportunities.
His sentiments sparked a minor media frenzy, and having such discontent splashed across the headlines on the eve of the playoffs could be a cause for headaches among United's front office and coaching staff.
However, veteran midfielder Ben Olsen maintains that the commotion has little effect on his teammates, though Adu's timing leaves much to be desired.
"To our players, it's not a big issue," said Olsen on Wednesday. "Freddy spouted off and got some stuff off his chest. It was probably the wrong time, but as an athlete people sometimes need to get stuff off their chest. He shouldn't have used the media to do that, though, and he shouldn't have done it at this time, right before playoffs. We're trying to, as a team, compete for the MLS Cup. The individual issues aren't that important right now."
Olsen's even-handed response suggests that the team may prefer to deal with the matter internally, as the squad has had to develop its own approach to handling Adu's unique situation over the past two seasons.
"It's been a tough situation from the start, and it's uncharted territory, so everything people are dealing with here with Freddy is new stuff," he said.
"We as a team are letting it be what it was -- him spouting off to the media a little bit and getting some stuff off his chest, and we'll go on with business as usual. It was a little bit of a focus today, just because the media was around, but it's done now and our minds are on Chicago."
Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.