United's confidence hanging by thread
WASHINGTON -- D.C. United's collective confidence is hanging by a thread in the wake of the team's second straight CONCACAF Champions League loss, a 3-1 home setback against Mexican side Toluca that extends their winless skid to four consecutive matches in all competitions.Winless after two games of Champions League group play, stumbling as they enter the crucial home stretch of their league calendar, United are presently experiencing an acute sense of déjà vu -- a sinking feeling akin to the lowest moments of last season, one of the club's most frustrating campaigns in recent history."It's the exact same position: we lost points at home, we lost a tough battle down in Honduras again this year and we're not sitting well, either in CONCACAF or in the league," acknowledged utility man Devon McTavish. "So it's going to become decision time where we've got to step up and get points or we're going to look back at this season and it's going to be the exact same as 2008."The Black-and-Red knew just how important Wednesday night's Group B match was for their ambitions of reaching the knockout stages, yet D.C. looked anemic from the opening whistle as Toluca snatched an opportunistic goal from Vladimir Marin five minutes in and went on to dominate the first 45 minutes as a whole.Second-half sub Santino Quaranta inspired a United fightback after the break, but the home side would have no answer for Chilean striker Hector Mancilla's well-taken late brace."Disappointing on all fronts. I thought we were manhandled in the first half. The energy we brought, we were unorganized -- we talked about how we were going to defend and we didn't do a good job with the way we tried to clog the middle," said United head coach Tom Soehn afterwards. "I thought Tino added some life and some energy and when we got the goal, it gave us a little spark. But it just wasn't enough. On the day in its entirety, it just wasn't good enough."Likely eyeing Saturday's important league match in Chicago, Soehn used a number of reserves in the first XI and began the match in a 4-4-2 formation, resting attacking stars Christian Gomez and Luciano Emilio."D.C. United is a strong team. We played them before so I expected them to be strong," said Toluca coach Jose Manuel De La Torre, who previously faced United during his stint in charge of Chivas de Guadalajara. "But yes, I was a little surprised to see some of the players who were not on the field."Toluca's possession mastery was always going to pose problems for United and the early goal only complicated the tall task of disrupting the Mexicans' rhythm. But D.C. found the perfect response at the opening of the second half when Chris Pontius nodded home Quaranta's cross to level matters, and for the next half-hour Toluca looked distinctly vulnerable.Yet United could not sustain the effort long enough to find the go-ahead goal that might well have transformed the match -- and perhaps arrested their recent slump as well."At some point we have to understand that we had them on their heels and that's what we needed, the early goal in the second half, and you keep going at them. It always seems like it's that one mistake or that one bad play that hurts us, puts us right back in the same predicament," said a visibly frustrated Quaranta. "When you're playing teams like Toluca, you're not going to keep getting chances to get back in the game. We have to understand that."Both Soehn and Quaranta took pains to address -- and dismiss -- the possibility that his team's crowded match schedule is an excuse for their precipitous dip in form. But with only one win out of seven overall matches in the month of August, the squad is clearly out of sorts and short of answers as their season threatens to slip away."It's a fragile thing. It's tough to build and it's easy to lose that confidence," said McTavish. "We're in a stretch here where as a team and as individuals, we're obviously not playing to our ability and that means we're not getting results. ... We've got to figure out."