DC faces string of must-win games

WASHINGTON -- Seven months and 41 matches after it began in the chilly days of early spring, D.C. United’s 2008 season has boiled down to this: three weeks, four games (three in the league, one in CONCACAF play), all of them essentially must-win situations if the club to have any chance of fulfilling its championship ambitions.United’s make-or-break October begins at RFK Stadium on Saturday, as Chivas USA hit the nation’s capital for a battle of hungry squads with little to no margin for error in their hunt for a wild card berth in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Presently sitting a point out of the final postseason berth with Chivas, Columbus and Kansas City remaining on their MLS calendar, D.C. has essentially admitted that they expect to have to win out in order to book their place in the so-called second season. Unsurprisingly, a mood of grim determination has set the tone around RFK this week.“We want to get in the playoffs, you know, and it just seems to be eluding us right now,” said defender Julius James. “But we have to be stubborn and we have to will our way into the playoffs. We’ve been getting burned and I think we got burnt enough. We’re really frustrated.”Over the past three weeks, the Black-and-Red have revived their CONCACAF Champions League hopes with three consecutive international victories, the most recent of which was a 5-1 drubbing of San Juan Jabloteh on Wednesday night. Confoundingly, they have stumbled to two consecutive home losses in league play during the same stretch, ending a season-long undefeated streak at their venerable old stadium. Moments after the close of Wednesday’s romp, D.C. head coach Tom Soehn was urging his team to turn the page and prepare for the challenge of Chivas, who must be considered far more dangerous visitors by any measure. “This one, as nice as it is, you got to put it to bed because our opponent on Saturday is going to be a lot more difficult and if you have stretches when you’re not tuned in, you’ll get punished,” said Soehn. “So we say you have to have a short memory in professional sports, both when you lose and when you win, knowing that you go back to work and it’s a different day, and you have to do the same things.”Intensity and concentration have been a recurring bugaboo for United, who can only wince when they look back on the points they’ve dropped throughout a season full of blown leads, frustrating draws and inconsistent finishing. “We just need to put games away,” said James. “When we’re ahead, we need to put it away and kick these teams to the curb. But for some reason we’re having some problems with that right now."A bumper crowd of more than 20,000 fans is expected at RFK and United should have plenty of noise and passion behind them as they take the game to a Red-and-White squad that tends to absorb pressure and look for the odd breakout when playing away from their Home Depot Center home.“Chivas is a team that likes to sit back defensively when they’re on the road, as a block of eight [players],” said D.C. defender Lawson Vaughn, himself a former Chivas mainstay. “They like to counterattack. So I think for us, we can expose the space between their back line and their d-mids. Also we can expose their outsides -– they like to tuck in a lot, they don’t like to give up a lot of stuff down the middle.”Preki’s Chivas USA side typically ranks as one of the more opportunistic teams in the league, so Saturday night will likely require a composed D.C. performance from front to back. In the wake of the season-ending injuries suffered by starting goalkeeper Josh Wicks last week, rookie Milos Kocic will be the man to watch on the defensive end as he looks to prove his quality between the sticks. Up front, Soehn has a full range of personnel options but whoever gets the nod simply must be clinical around goal.“It all depends on us,” said playmaker Christian Gomez on Wednesday. “If we convert our opportunities when we create them, we should be OK.”