United hope home cooking brings wins
WASHINGTON -- For several weeks, D.C. United have searched in vain for a string of winning results in league play to help them make headway in the MLS playoff picture. Several recent performances have offered signs of progress, although victories remain elusive and a postseason berth still lingers just out of reach.Last weekend's trip to Texas brought another mixed bag, a 2-2 draw with FC Dallas -- United's 12th tie of 2009 -- that featured two game-tying goals from D.C. as well as several unsettling defensive breakdowns.The campaign is trickling away, but the Black-and-Red have had one major reason to remain bullish: a run of five consecutive league matches at home, starting with Wednesday night's visit by the Kansas City Wizards."We're excited about it," said midfielder-turned-defender Clyde Simms of his team's imminent homestand. "We feel like we're in a good position now. If we can get some points like we've been doing pretty much the entire year here in D.C., then we'll be in a good position to make the playoffs, and keep some momentum going into the playoffs."D.C. sit deadlocked with three other teams at 33 points overall, but both New England and Chivas USA presently own an important advantage in the form of two games in hand. If they are to avoid missing out on the playoffs for a second consecutive season, United will need to collect a bevy of positive results at RFK Stadium in the weeks ahead."I feel like we are in control of our own destiny," said head coach Tom Soehn after the draw against Dallas. "We've got to take care of business at home."Soehn and his charges would undoubtedly prefer to haul themselves into range of Eastern Conference leaders Columbus and Chicago as soon as possible. Last year the squad faced a must-win game at Columbus on the final day of the season and twice saw shots clang off the woodwork before giving up a Brad Evans thunderbolt that ended their season and handed the East's final playoff spot to New York.That 1-0 loss to the Crew last October 26 capped a long, slow decline brought on by injuries, international play and overall loss of form. United are eager to avoid such a fate this time around, but are acutely aware that it all depends on their performances -- and results -- over the next month.Defensive rigidity is particularly important at this time of year, but the D.C. back line has suddenly grown threadbare over the past week with the loss of first-teamers Dejan Jakovic and Marc Burch due to surgery on nagging injuries. Soehn re-arranged his side in a 4-4-2 last weekend, with Simms a somewhat surprising choice at center back alongside Julius James.The duo possess ample athleticism, but crafting chemistry on such short notice is no small task and Dallas carved out their share of scoring chances at Pizza Hut Park. Long a holding midfielder, Simms has not logged significant time in central defense since playing there with the reserve team several years ago and he admits to having gained "new respect" for his teammates on the back line."It's just like the midfield with the shifting and things like that, but you're the last line of defense so you really can't afford to make any mistakes in that position," said the five-year veteran. "One of the things that had to change is just to not take any chances with the ball -- if I was in doubt at any moment in the game, I had to just clear it out and push the line up."While Simms and his mates try to batten down the hatches in back, improvement is also expected up front. The United frontline has been mercurial of late, often struggling to convert the team's long periods of possession into real attacking menace. Soehn left leading veterans Christian Gomez, Jaime Moreno and Luciano Emilio on the bench to start Saturday's match and this week the D.C. boss has called on Gomez to show more urgency and eagerness in his playmaking duties.The season's stretch run typically means shrinking margins for error at both ends of the field and D.C. will need coldblooded finishing from their South American contingent."I think right now you'll see within the league that everything is going to shore up and you're not going to have 20 chances like we created early in the season. It means being clinical on your chances, what you create," said Soehn last week. "There's going to be less opportunities. So you have to make sure that when you do get your chance, you have the killer instinct to put teams away."Charles Boehm is a contributor to MLSnet.com.