United facing uncertain offseason
WASHINGTON -- The team's 2009 season might have shuddered to a sudden, heartbreaking halt in Kansas City over the weekend, but D.C. United players, fans and front-office staff defied drab, rainy weather to congregate one more time on Tuesday night, as the club's Sixth Annual United Awards Reception at the Atlas Theater in northeast Washington brought down the curtain on another trying campaign for the Black-and-Red.The evening honored award winners like team Most Valuable Player Clyde Simms and team Humanitarian of the Year Devon McTavish, while raising thousands of dollars for United for D.C., the club's charitable arm. But it also offered a few hours of merriment and fellowship at the end of a prolonged, tumultuous season that wound to a sad but suitable conclusion at CommunityAmerica Ballpark on Saturday night, where United saw the Wizards dash their postseason hopes with a last-second equalizer to deny D.C. the victory that would have propelled them into the MLS Cup Playoffs in spectacular fashion.Needing three points in their final league match, United stormed back from a 1-0 deficit to seize a 2-1 lead against the Wizards on a gutsy header by injured defender Julius James in the game's final minutes, only to surrender a stoppage-time penalty kick that was buried by K.C. star Claudio Lopez. The agony was multiplied moments later when D.C.'s Rodney Wallace clanged a last-ditch shot off the inside of the crossbar as he and his shorthanded teammates scrapped to the very end."Yeah, it was, completely," said midfielder Devon McTavish on Tuesday, when asked whether the match represented a microcosm of his squad's year. "Going down, coming back and with 10 minutes left in the game we finally got the lead, showed a lot of the fight that we showed throughout the season. And then them getting a penalty kick in the 92nd minute just says a lot about the season. Whatever we did either wasn't up to where it should have been, or we excelled and then we let off the gas pedal."United faced yet another daunting schedule in '09, one weighed down by international play and a deep run in the U.S. Open Cup as 30 league contests were supplemented by six in the Open Cup and eight CONCACAF Champions League tussles. But in the end, their MLS Cup ambitions were undone by a poorly timed loss of form in their own backyard at the end of summer.Plagued by controversial moments and unsatisfying draws all season, D.C. had already dropped more than their share of points and ultimately could not afford their three-match losing skid in league play from Sept. 12 to Oct. 3. Seattle, San Jose and Chivas USA took full points from their visits to RFK Stadium after the Black-and-Red had rolled up an undefeated home record to that point."We knew we were coming home and that was probably the most disappointing part of the season, that we let results slip there," said head coach Tom Soehn. "I thought the guys really turned it around and now finished strong, but we just put too much pressure on ourselves not getting results at home."United ended their campaign with a winning record but have now missed out on the playoffs for two years running, a galling failure for a fan base which bears what are arguably the highest expectations in Major League Soccer. So while eight of the league's other clubs battle for the right to hoist the Philip F. Anschutz Trophy as league champions, D.C. must once again face a slew of troubling questions, beginning with the fate of Soehn and several of his most visible veterans.Owner/investor Will Chang and president Kevin Payne have signaled their intention to keep faith with general manager Dave Kasper, but will take most of November to decide whether Soehn will remain in his post. United have technically never fired a head coach, but elected not to renew the contracts of former bosses Thomas Rongen and Ray Hudson and Soehn must wait to learn whether he will experience a similar fate."There definitely has to be some tweaking. That goes without saying," acknowledged Soehn on Tuesday. When asked about specific roster moves, he chuckled, then said, "Right now, until I know that's my decision to make, I think I'll [wait]. If I'm here, I think you'll see the changes."It's a tough one. I don't know my status."In a somewhat unorthodox move, he and his staff have told the playing squad that regular training sessions will resume next week and continue until Dec. 5 as the club evaluates personnel ahead of another uncertain offseason."As long as that paycheck's coming my way, I have to do what they say, right?" cracked veteran midfielder Ben Olsen, who hopes to return to United for another season after working his way back from career-threatening ankle troubles. "That's the long and short of that."