Coaches of slumping teams typically face a choice familiarto gamblers with a cold hand: either stay the course in the hopes of eventualvindication, or take dramatic steps to shake up established routines andhabits.
D.C. United boss Curt Onalfo has thus far espoused theformer approach as he tries to guide his 0-4 side to better results. But with avirulent injury outbreak set to coincide with a busy run of matches, theBlack-and-Red may have little choice but to ring a few changes and try newmethods in their increasingly urgent search for a victory, starting withWednesday’s U.S. Open Cup play-in match against FC Dallas.
“I don’t know if we can even shuffle a lot of players rightnow, with the injuries we have,” said hamstrung attacker Chris Pontius lastweek. “But we’ve got to find a way to win. The players that we have in are theplayers that we have. We have to find a way.”
United’s injury list is nine players deep and the team facesthree league matches in quick succession starting this weekend, all of whichwould turn a cup qualifier into a nuisance for many MLS clubs. But Onalfo’shumbled squad sees little room to marginalize any competitive match, especiallyone that potentially offers a route into CONCACAF Champions League.
“Every game at this point is important,” defender DevonMcTavish said. “It’s one of the goals of the team, of the organization, to getback into international play and Open Cup’s a good way to do that. So at thispoint we’re just trying to get a win no matter what it’s in.”
Dallas’ visit could nonetheless open doors for severalplayers on the periphery who are eager for a chance to make an impression andspark another deep run in the nation’s oldest cup competition, which United wonin 2008.
“Sometimes when you’re on the outside looking in, whenyou’re watching, you feel like you can help the team,” explained winger BoyzzzKhumalo, who has played just 53 minutes this season. “Sometimes you just needthat little spark. I’m not saying I’m the spark, I’m just saying somethingdifferent. Maybe something canchange.”
A few eyebrows were raised around RFK Stadium last week whenquotes attributed to Khumalo in a story on an African news website implied thatthe South African was discontented in D.C. and considering a move home. Likemost reserve players around the world, Khumalo readily admits he would likemore opportunities for playing time, but says he was badly misquoted by ajournalist friend in his home country. The 29-year-old striker seems likely tofigure in Wednesday’s lineup, where his creativity could add another dimensionto the D.C. attack.
“Every time there’s a game, I want to be part of the team,”Khumalo said. “I think I can help every time we have a game. When I’m given mychance, I have to go out there and prove that I deserve to be there. I believethere’s going to be a turning point—something’s going to happen. It’s not how youstart, it’s how you finish.”