It's now three days until DC United begins its 2008 campaign against the Kansas City Wizards and it looks like, even more so than in years past, they are ready to step beyond the MLS elite. As I wrote in my article two weeks ago, this year’s United team has seen a complete transformation from the team two years ago and has become one that can not only dominate the MLS but also begin a routine of successful performances in international cups. Obviously, however, the team must show complete cohesion before any amount of success can be had and the first several games of 2008 will be telling of how the rest of the year will shape up.
There was, not panic per say, but a number of held breaths following United’s 1-1 away draw against Harbour View. Excuses were quickly tossed about that Harbour View’s fitness was better, the field conditions were poor, and United players were still adjusting to one another. Well no excuse was needed after the home leg of the two-match round when United absolutely dominated, with 2 goals by Luciano Emilio and one by Devon McTavish coming within a 5 minute span in the second half. The 5-0 win pointed directly towards a team that is starting to gel, and particularly emphasized the development of McTavish who played superbly in the series against the Jamaican side.
Though the I have the utmost respect for Harbour View, the Saturday season opening match against Kansas City will be a far better litmus test for the new United squad. The Wizards are coming into 2008 with a slightly remodelled team and, like DC, are featuring the addition of their first Designated Player, also an Argentinean international. Like DC’s Marcelo Gallardo, the Wizards’ Claudio Lopez has also represented Argentina in world cup play and played for both a top Argentinean and European club. Lopez, a winger/forward, and Colombian forward Ivan Trujillo were brought in to improve a team that generated little offense during the second half of the 2007 season and finished with an uninspiring league record of 11-12-7. Unlike United who was able to make specific improvements in a bid for more international hardware, the Wizards are looking to just improve their position within the MLS. The loss of Eddie Johnson to Fulham at the beginning of 2008 meant the loss of their leading goal scorer from 2007 and Kansas City hopes that Lopez can be the offense spark that he was for his previous clubs Valencia, Lazio, and Club America. DC United is placing similar pressure on Gallardo, asking him to improve upon the role that Christian Gomez had fashioned for himself as the offense’s handler. The dynamics of two Argentinean Designated Players will be a lot of fun to watch as they both play their first MLS league match.
It’s no secret that United should be a clear favorite to win this match. They fashioned the best league record last year and, on paper at least, it looks they have only improved. With all their success last year, United only managed to win one of three games against the Wizards, losing one and drawing the other. In fact, United played their first home game of the 2007 season against the Wizards and found themselves on the losing end of a 4-2 finish. The ’07 season also began with three straight loses, which can be partly blamed on United still figuring out how to incorporate Emilio and Fred. I’m confident, however, that there is less reason to be nervous about the newest batch of acquired players and their ability to fit into United’s system. When the two Brazilians arrived last year, there was obvious uncertainty about how they would fit into Tom Soehn’s scheme. Fred in particular was asked to move to an outside midfield role after primarily playing forward and central midfield for his previous team. This time around the incoming players were selected to fill specific positions so the only learning curve will be in becoming familiar with Soehn’s coaching and the other players.
With all my hyping up of the team I would still make a conservative prediction of a 1-0 win for United. While United is, in my opinion, clearly the better team, Kansas City has armed themselves with players capable of making an impact and that must be considered. The Wizards also have a very good defensive core in defenders Jimmy Conrad and Jack Jewsbury. Conrad has captained the US National team in 2007 and will provide an excellent test for Gallardo, Emilio, and the rest of the United attack.
There is plenty of question over what the starting lineup will look like, particularly with the team having to travel to Mexico for the CONCACAF semifinals immediately after the game against the Wizards. Soehn said on the two upcoming games that "it's difficult enough to play back-to-back games when you are in full fitness midway through the season, and we've only been together for a short time," which suggests he could fiddle with lineups, especially for the Kansas City match. I expect that we will see a very similar starting XI to the one sent out against Harbour View in the home match at RFK.
And so another season begins for DC United with the usual pomp and fanfare that this team rightly deserves. Time will certainly tell how far this team can go but, for right now at least, there is no ceiling in sight.
DC United @ Kansas City Wizards – 8:00 pm, 3/29/2008
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