Tampa Bay Sports Day

Expect to see DC United’s best against Real Madrid

DC United’s match with Spanish and world powerhouse Real Madrid on Sunday at FedEx Field of course means absolutely nothing to any league or cup standings. It could be argued that the September 2nd Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup final has more long term value and ramifications than this match. That match with Seattle may well feature United’s best XI but you are more likely to see that top team trot out onto to the park on Sunday.

In the middle of a long stretch of games in a confined time span with heavy travel considerations, Coach Tom Soehn has seemingly based his selections and managed the minutes of certain players based on his perceived importance of the match and the level of the team they are facing.

United played Real to a scintillating 1-1 draw in Seattle in 2006, playing the Galacticos down to the wire, arguably their best match of that season. In that match, then Coach Peter Nowak played a first team line-up before the packed house at Qwest Field.

Though barely into their pre-season training camp, United will be facing another Real Madrid team chock full of world-class talent including the recently acquired World Player of the Year, Cristiano Ronaldo.

During the recently completed World Soccer Challenge, though entertaining to a degree, it was definitively evident that the three European powers, AC and Inter Milan and Chelsea, were not coordinated regardless of their fitness levels.

United has always taken matches against teams of this pedigree a bit more seriously than other friendlies. Their international desires are ambitious and they don’t apologize for it one bit.

Though not playing for points or positioning, and most likely before a slightly smaller crowd in the enormous FedEx Field, Soehn is well aware of the value a good performance can have for that standing and for the remainder of his team’s season.

United recently advanced to the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League defeating C.D. L.A. Firpo of El Salvador on penalty kicks in the road leg of their play-in series.

“This club always puts a lot of emphasis on this tournament,” said midfielder Ben Olsen. “We want to be one of the better teams in this region and this is a way to put a stamp not only in America but abroad and show that D.C. United is a regional power.”

“We take every competition very seriously,” General Manager Dave Kasper said. “We want to win every competition and in order to do that, much like in Europe and South America, playing in this competition and that competition you need a deep roster.”

Before the arrival of David Beckham in 2007, United were the only Major League Soccer club with any name recognition outside of the United States and North America, especially in Europe. They have been the standard bearer for the league not only with their results but with their style of play.

In the home leg of the Firpo series, Soehn carried over just three starters from the 2-2 draw in San Jose the previous weekend, a line-up he felt was just good enough to get past a team that started their training two weeks prior and earlier than expected after replacing CD Chalatenango in the tournament. Instead his team fell flat and escaped with a shaky 1-1.

Dejan Jakovic started at right back instead of his customary central position to give Bryan Namoff a well deserved but costly break. Avery John got the call on the left and Greg Janicki started in the middle and his dreadful turnover at the top of the penalty area led to Firpo’s goal.

Jaime Moreno was the only true creative force until Christian Gomez, Luciano Emilio and Chris Pontius came on later in the match. Pontius actually replaced Moreno, who knocked home a penalty kick to equalize the match just before halftime.

In the return leg, Soehn fielded a first choice line-up that once again did not include Pontius and though it was difficult, got the desired result. The rookie has had a sensational season and though he came on in the 72nd minute, his omission was a sign of the team’s depth.

Soehn has used the standard pattern of fielding B-teams in the U.S. Open Cup matches while resting starters for MLS league matches. He has rotated his big three attacking personalities-Moreno, Gomez, Emilio-with all three playing at least 45-minutes in every MLS match during that stretch, barring injury. Olsen is routinely a game day decision but has played at least a half when available.

United is as healthy and deep as they have been in recent weeks with the return of Santino Quaranta and Jakovic from U.S. and Canadian national team duty respectively, despite two severe injuries in recent weeks to Brandon Barklage and Boyzzz Khumalo in successive U.S. Open Cup wins.

Moreno, Olsen, Gomez, Fred, and Emilio have all been injured and missed significant time. One fortunate break for their rehabilitation and conditioning, and for entire team during this stretch, has been the atypically cool weather and low humidity in the Washington area.

United played six matches in 18-days culminating in the penalty kick win Tuesday in El Salvador. They played their worst match of the season at Colorado, dropping a 3-0 decision at the tail end of three games in eight days with the latter two in the western half of country. Shortly thereafter, both national teamers left and a series of injuries to their best veteran players left Soehn needing to make decisions on how to use his players and still get results.

“We are all counted on,” said Moreno. “He has been clear on that all year, everyone is counted on and everyone has to be ready. Hopefully no one will get injured and we can take off the second half of the season, which is the most important one. We have a deep team and everyone has proven every time they get their chance so everyone has to be ready and be expecting to play.”