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D.C. United hope to hit faster gear

WASHINGTON -- D.C. United currently sit in the precise middle of the MLS Eastern Conference standings with five points, a goal differential of zero and a 1-1-2 record. It's hardly an outstanding mark, but not so bad given the manner in which the club has stumbled out of the blocks over the past two seasons, with an 0-3-1 league start in 2007 and a 3-7-1 record through May last year.United's coaches and players are cautiously optimistic about their situation thus far, perhaps because the area with the most room for improvement is a traditional D.C. strength. While a young, untested defense has shown surprisingly well, the United attack has yet to hit its full stride, with striker Luciano Emilio (three goals) the only established veteran looking like his normal self at this point.With the likes of Jaime Moreno, Fred, Santino Quaranta, Ange N'Silu and Francis Doe, head coach Tom Soehn possesses an arsenal of tricksters and creators, but several are still working themselves up to speed thanks to injuries and fitness concerns. The process is often frustrating for the players in question, but one that the Black-and-Red coaching staff can face leisurely in light of the long campaign ahead."It's going to take a game or two to get up to where I want to be, where your mind is on the same page with your feet," said Quaranta. "It's such a long season that people are going to have their ups and downs. You're just always ready when you're called on, I guess."Meanwhile, the youngsters who've stepped into the breach have yet to strike up ideal chemistry with playmaker Christian Gomez, himself another skillful veteran still in search of his top form and fitness."He's getting there, but he's not 100 percent yet," said Soehn this week. "I think when Christian's at his best you're going to see him pull away from guys more and we haven't seen enough of that yet. But I think he knows it and we're working to get him there."Gomez is a soft-spoken family man off the field. Yet there's little doubt that he recognizes and accepts his pivotal role in the attack -- and what it requires from his teammates."Individually, I still need to have the ball more in order to have better success on the offensive end," he said. "Right now I'm not where I need to be as far as having the possession of the ball go through me during the game. So it's something that I'm working on."The four-time MLS All-Star merits close attention from opposing defensive midfielders and he's been well-shadowed by the likes of Logan Pause and Ricardo Clark this year. But Soehn expects his newer players, many of whom were not around during Gomez's first stint in D.C., to grow more familiar with the Argentinian's ample abilities in tight spaces."Guys are keying on him a lot more," said Soehn. "So I think some of our young guys have to learn that even with someone on Christian's back, you're comfortable enough to play it to him. He can handle that. So it's still a learning process of him finding good spots, us finding him, and us being a better soccer team, which we're still growing into."With 65 years of age between them, Gomez and fellow veteran Ben Olsen might not seem like typical central midfield dynamos. But the duo have been at the heart of many of United's best sequences this year and Olsen believes that his colleague will once again prove himself capable of carrying the squad in the weeks ahead."As we become a better soccer team and start to keep the ball better, and gel offensively, I think you'll see him be the player he was," said Olsen, who hopes to return to the first XI against New England on Friday after ankle soreness nudged him off the traveling roster last week."He hasn't been bad, he just hasn't been that MVP status that people hold him to. But he's working hard off the field to get fit. He had a lot of time off. Again, as we become a better soccer team, we've got to get him the ball more."