United hope to avoid Rocky Mountain low
WASHINGTON -- There's something about the mountain states that lays D.C. United low.The Black-and-Red have won just once in four road matches against Real Salt Lake, and if you roll in the stats from their trips to neighboring Colorado, it adds up to 5-12-2 all-time record in the Rocky Mountains. Last year D.C. gave up six goals and scored none in their two visits to Real and the Rapids, only one gruesome snapshot from a road-leery campaign that saw the team win just two league matches away from RFK Stadium.United opened the 2009 season with a decent 2-2 away result against the Galaxy, then displayed the ability to 'win ugly' over Houston at RFK last week. The back line, the team's biggest question mark, has shown promising signs and now the travails of travel represent another mental block to be hurdled as United heads to Utah to take on RSL on Saturday."You can tell defensively, there's a good emphasis on helping each other, and backing each other up and doing the dirty work," said midfielder Ben Olsen, himself a major ingredient in that change. "Now, we'd all like to see us play a more attractive style right now offensively, but I'd rather it be this way than playing this wonderful attractive style and having 3-2 games. It's really a good sign that we're competing at the right level and that's what you need to get wins on the road."The crisp, flowing style the club traditionally takes pride in has only appeared in flashes, but this year's squad is delighted to pick up points by any means necessary while the attack finds its feet."Early in the year you want to make sure you take care of the defensive things first, and as the season develops, obviously the offense will come together, create more opportunities," said United head coach Tom Soehn. "But to win games, you don't need 20 opportunities. You need two, three, four real good ones."United are ready to test their nascent resilience with another challenge and Saturday afternoon should fit the bill. The team United will face in their first-ever match at Rio Tinto Stadium, RSL's dazzling new home ground, might be the strongest Real side to date. Coach Jason Kreis and general manager Garth Lagerwey, following his long stint as a United television commentator, have built a speedy, aggressive squad that drew effusive praise from one member of the D.C. locker room."They're a good team -- I actually like the way they play," said winger Santino Quaranta, who hopes to make his first 2009 appearance on Saturday. "They're really organized and the guys up top, they're a handful. When you've got guys that do that, they're game-changers. We really have to be organized because it's a big field, it's a tough place to play."Speedy striker Robbie Findlay and midfield dynamo Kyle Beckerman have been United's traditional tormentors, notching six goals in the teams' last four meetings, but Yura Movsisyan, Clint Mathis and Javier Morales present significant threats as well. Defending MLS Cup champions Columbus Crew, beaten 4-1 at Rio Tinto last week, can attest to Real's potency.However, Soehn believes better application of midfield pressure can blunt the RSL attack and with his team's newfound stinginess in mind, he's unlikely to urge too many numbers forward."Columbus gave them a lot of space, especially in the midfield, to play balls in behind, and if you do that, they have frontrunners who can expose you," said the United boss. "So one, we have to limit their creativeness through the midfield and make it a lot more predictable, and two, we have to stay organized and attack with shape."One key aspect of United's historical Utah hex will undoubtedly vanish when they set foot on Rio Tinto's lush lawn. Up to now, trips to Salt Lake invoked dread among D.C. players if only because of the rock-hard artificial surface at Real's temporary home, Rice-Eccles Stadium."I think everybody's very happy to not play in that disaster of a stadium they were playing at before. It was terrible," said Olsen. "Not only was it not great turf, whatever was under it made the ball bounce ridiculously high -- it was just a full-blown bloodfest every time. Not to mention we didn't have the best results there."