United want to make statement against Chivas
WASHINGTON -- Bearing a six-game unbeaten streak that belies a substantial number of unresolved issues, D.C. United hope to provide proof of their progress over the past two months this weekend as they make their second West Coast trip of the season for an enticing matchup with league leaders Chivas USA.United opened the 2009 campaign against the Los Angeles Galaxy at The Home Depot Center on March 22, earning a 2-2 draw whose merit was tempered by the fact that the visitors were 2-0 up with less than half an hour to play. The Black-and-Red have subsequently proven themselves to be a tenacious, attack-minded outfit, but the inability to hold down leads has become a recurring theme which has cost the club points and apparently taken a hit on their coach's hairline as well.When asked this week if his side's proclivity for late drama has given him gray hairs, head coach Tom Soehn chuckled and said, "No, not yet. It just falls right out -- I don't waste time with the gray stuff."The stress on Soehn's follicles will only increase in southern California if his team continues to exhibit the ill-timed errors that have bedeviled them on several occasions this year. Chivas USA boast the league's best record and stingiest defense and have yet to allow a goal in the second half of any match. Most impressively, the Red-and-White have posted those achievements amid a raft of injuries and enforced absences.On Tuesday, United's boss paid warm tribute to Chivas and especially their head coach, Preki, who won MLS Coach of the Year honors in 2007 and now ranks as an early candidate for this season's honor. The only player named league MVP twice in his career has also helped reinvigorate goalkeeper Zach Thornton, a former teammate of Soehn's in Chicago whose career nearly foundered after a trying overseas stint in Portugal several years ago.Meanwhile, D.C. has been juggling 'keepers furiously as Louis Crayton, Milos Kocic and Josh Wicks have all earned starts, but have yet to fully assert themselves as the clear No. 1."He's done a great job of keeping that group together through injuries. They play a brand of soccer that defines him and his group has all bought into it, whether it's one piece or another," said Soehn of Preki. "That's what you try to accomplish so that it doesn't fall off, and he's done a pretty good job of managing that. He's even resurrected Zach, who I also played with, and Zach's having a great year."Both men share an uncompromising, blue-collar approach to their current jobs and during their playing careers, Preki was an old adversary of Soehn's from the indoor game as well as the early years of MLS. A defender for most of that time, Soehn regularly had to contend with the Yugoslavian-born wizard's wicked left foot and the infamous cutback move he routinely employed to unleash it."How would I handle it? I'd kick Preki," joked Soehn. "We were very competitive individuals. When we played, it was mostly indoor. I had to mark him a lot, and it was always fun because we were both professional. We'd battle during the game, but after the game it was a friendship."Soehn has labored to infuse his team with the relentlessness that has become Chivas USA's calling card under Preki, and has seen ample reasons for positivity. Since their only loss of the season, a 2-1 setback at Real Salt Lake that -- unsurprisingly -- featured a blown first-half lead for United, D.C. owns a 3-0-3 record which bears witness to the squad's encouraging ability to dig deep and scrap out results in a variety of circumstances."We're getting points. We're not losing games -- we've lost one game this year," said rookie Chris Pontius. "But we're giving up leads also, so that's frustrating. We obviously need to be able to close the game down when we go up 1-0. And the goals they're scoring, they're not quality goals. So we need to eliminate those."A graduate of UC-Santa Barbara, Pontius grew up a short drive from The Home Depot Center and turned United's season opener at the venue into his professional coming-out party with a beautifully-struck goal. He's gone on to become an early contender for Rookie of the Year and will again look to show well on his homecoming, especially in the wake of his MLS Goal of the Week strike against Toronto last Saturday."It's huge, it's huge," he said of the boost that tally represented. "Offensive players, we run off of confidence, so I start scoring a couple and my confidence builds and hopefully I put away a couple more."United can consider themselves lucky to have an injury list that is a fraction of their opponents', though club officials have been coy regarding the status of midfielder Ben Olsen, who hopes to overcome a nagging hamstring problem in time for Saturday.Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com.