Thursday, September 21, 2006

Turn It On, Turn It On Again

After beating the Columbus Crew on July 15, D.C. United's record stood at 13 wins, five ties, and one loss. Since that time, however, United has only won once in nine league games, tying five and losing three. Having jumped out to such a great record in the first half of the season, the team is still all-but-assured of winning the Eastern Conference and having home field advantage in the playoffs, but it's not clear which set of results is the correct reflection of the team.

Early in the season, I recall thinking that we were getting much better than deserved results -- we tied games where we deserved to lose, and won games which easily could have ended in ties. But as the season unfolded, United began earning its wins. Either the team was gelling, or it gained confidence from the early good fortune. Before our record turned south, we had won seven consecutive games. At the same time, however, the team beat the weak foes in its conference -- we played all four of our games against both last place Columbus and fourth place Kansas City in our first 19 games, and had won seven of them, tying the other. Take away the games against those clearly inferior opponents, as well as our three games against the 5th place Red Bull New York (a win and 2 ties), and our record against the rest of the league is 6 wins, 7 ties and 4 losses -- better than average, but nothing special.

Then again, we've had injuries to several of our top offensive players in recent weeks, and knowing that the regular season isn't very important, Coach Nowak has exercised caution with the injuries. Similarly, we've had several stretches where we've had midweek games, and Nowak has rested some of the starters in order to ensure they'll be fresh at the end of the season. In an important game, the best players would be on the field if they're able to be.

And I guess that's really where we sit right now -- the recent slide seems due to not being as good as our record indicates, and a mentality that at this point, each game isn't critical. One of the enduring questions in sports is whether a team, having taken the foot off the pedal, can regain its edge when it wants to. Often this is a matter of a team having clinched a playoff spot with a couple of weeks to go, and so they want to rest their starters -- the last five games of an 82-game NBA season means little to a team that won its division with eight games to go. The difference, however, is that in the case of D.C. United, the resting up involves the most recent 9 games in a 32-game schedule -- over 25 percent of the season -- during a stretch of over two months. I have trouble believing that it's as easy as turning on a light switch after such a long period of suckitude.

United has four games left in the regular season. Hopefully its next game, Saturday against likely first-round playoff opponent Red Bull, shows a return to the early season form as the team gears up for the playoffs. Best regular season record or not, I don't see this team making it to the championship game, much less winning it, if it doesn't get its act together soon.