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Monday, March 22, 2010
ESPNsoccernet: March 25, 9:35 PM UK
United they stand -- if the back line holds

Justin Rodriguez

2009 record and finish: 9-8-13, fourth in East, missed playoffs

Key additions: GK Troy Perkins, M Christian Castillo, F Danny Allsopp, F Adam Cristman

Key losses: F Luciano Emilio, M Fred, M Christian Gomez

Key questions:

1. Can United's defense survive without Marc Burch and Bryan Namoff?

The proposition seems like a disastrous one when you consider what the pair means to D.C.

In his 26 starts last season before sustaining a concussion against Kansas City on Sept. 12, Bryan Namoff missed just 14 minutes. He went on to miss the rest of the season and is still feeling the aftershock of the blow. Namoff trained with the team in Charleston, S.C., last week, but he is doubtful for the start of the season.

Marc Burch, who has 46 starts in the last two seasons, is out nearly four months after undergoing surgery to repair a broken bone in his right foot.

It may be only the preseason, but first-year coach Curt Onalfo has patched together a back line that may be able to make a stand until Namoff and Burch return.

Devon McTavish, Rodney Wallace, Dejan Jakovic and Julius James helped United open with a 6-1-2 preseason record. Juan Manuel Pena, 37, who played in La Liga for Real Valladolid (1995-2004) and Villarreal (2004-07), is on trial and could stick. Defensive midfielder Clyde Simms, recovering from meniscus surgery, will provide more stability. Less certain are James, who started just eight games for Houston last year before being acquired in August, and McTavish (five starts).

What should help United's back line operate is the presence of goalkeeper Troy Perkins. Perkins broke into the league with United in 2004 as a developmental player, working second jobs before developing into a starter two years later. He parlayed his success in the nation's capital into a contract with Norwegian Valerenga.

Perkins played for Valerenga in 2008-09, but he returned stateside because his family is more comfortable in the U.S. He provides much-needed stability in net for United, which played revolving keepers last season.

But for the back line that is expected to protect Perkins, the real test comes when the real shots and runs come in real games.

2. Who replaces former MLS MVP Luciano Emilio up top?

Take your pick: With Emilio back in Brazil, playing for second-division side Rio Branco, four different players may see time at forward for United.

Leading the way is the old man -- 36-year-old Jaime Moreno -- who played with United from 1996 to 2002 and returned to D.C. six years ago. Moreno's legs look good and he scored four goals in three games in one preseason run.

Chris Pontius, United's first-round draft pick a year ago who has gained seasoning at U.S. national camps, continues to come on. Danny Allsopp, a veteran of the EPL and Australia's Hyundai A League, is a savvy player and, at 6-foot-1, makes a good target. He will become the first Australian to play a regular-season game in the MLS.

United also hopes to get goals from Adam Cristman, who played in just five games for Kansas City last season because of a fractured metatarsal that required surgery. Cristman scored a career-high six goals for New England two years ago.

Still, United's four-headed striker lacks the presence of Emilio, United's designated player, whose contract option was not picked up after last year. Emilio scored 41 goals in three years for United, including 20 in his first season to win the Golden Boot award. United could also look at it this way: Emilio scored just 11 goals in 2008 and 10 last season.

Not as an intimidating a number to replace as 20.

MLS team previews

Eastern Conference
Chicago Fire
Columbus Crew
D.C. United
Kansas City Wizards
New England Revolution
New York Red Bulls
Philadelphia Union
Toronto FC

Western Conference
Chivas USA
Colorado Rapids
Houston Dynamo
Los Angeles Galaxy
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders
FC Dallas

3. Is new coach Curt Onalfo the man to turn this thing around?

He'd better be.

United's loyal and knowledgeable fan base expects a winner. After all, the Black and Red has claimed the most MLS Cups in league history (four), winning the first-ever league championship in 1996. But United, battling injuries, tanked two years ago, going 11-15-4.

The proud franchise missed out on the playoffs by two points to New England last year, but it still put up a mediocre 9-8-13 record. The result? Coach Tom Soehn, at the helm for three years, removed his name from consideration for the position last November in advance of his contract expiring.

Translation: Soehn didn't wait around to get canned. Enter Onalfo, who makes sense for many reasons. Mainly, he has deep D.C. United roots, having played for the club and previously served as an interim and assistant coach for the team. He comes to the Black and Red after a so-so run as head coach in Kansas City.

Onalfo went 27-29-22 in two-plus seasons. He was fired last August after starting the year 5-6-7, which left the Wizards in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. Here, with United, he has proved to be a good communicator with his charges early on.

They believe in Onalfo. Still, it will take some wins to make followers of United's loyal supporters at RFK Stadium.

Biggest X factor: Santino Quaranta

Left for the scrap heap after being released by the Red Bulls following the 2007 season, Quaranta made a near-miraculous comeback with United in '08. And Quaranta has just kept coming on.

Last season, he played in 22 games, including 19 starts, with two goals and a career-high six assists. Quaranta's spirited play earned him his first U.S. national team call-up since '06. United expects Quaranta, whose first stint in D.C. lasted from 2001 to 2006 (he broke into the league at age 16), to produce even more this season.

He's still young -- only 25 -- and has taken on a leadership role with the team.

Breakout player to watch: Rodney Wallace

Wallace is seemingly always coming -- attacking the strikers and midfielders with the ball -- and making scoring runs up field.

That's what makes the second-year player so dynamic. Gifted with speed and athleticism, Wallace can lock it down on defense, and isn't afraid to push it, always getting back on counterattacks. United selected Wallace as the sixth overall pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft and he made the team brass look good.

Wallace played in 28 games, including 25 starts, putting up three goals and three assists. He's versatile enough to move up to midfield and is playing well in preseason on the left side with midfielder Christian Castillo, who played last year in Mexico for Leon.

The expectation is that Wallace will only be better this season.

Outlook

Just three years ago, United finished the regular-season 16-7-7, winning the Supporters' Shield.

Ah, those were the days. D.C. is a long way from that level of play, but 2010 is a chance to return the proud franchise to where those with the team feel it belongs: the top of the MLS standings.

A playoff run is certainly possible, considering that a few bounces here and there last season would have led to United qualifying. But questions remain. Can the Black and Red's crowded front line produce goals? And if it doesn't, does the back line give in? Worse, even with Quaranta coming on, United has lost Fred and Christian Gomez in the midfield from last season.

United fans might know what they have in this club pretty early on. Four of its first seven games this season come against teams that posted losing records in 2009 (Kansas City twice, Red Bulls, FC Dallas). Another comes against expansion team Philadelphia. Seven games don't decide a season. But for United, they will serve as an important test.

Justin Rodriguez covers USL, NCAA and youth soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He is the soccer writer for the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y., and can be reached at rodriguezespn@yahoo.com.




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