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D.C. United still is in MLS class by itself.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Wednesday, June 9, 1999) -- Despite continued salary cap losses and injuries, D.C. United continues to be the class of Major League Soccer.

It is 8-3 for 20 points following consecutive victories against Eastern Conference favorite Columbus Crew and Western Conference leader Chicago Fire.

The most recent 1-0 win against the Crew wasn't even close. D.C. United didn't miss All-Star defenders Eddie Pope and Carlos Llamosa, who remained out with injuries.

Tom Presthus has been strong in goal. Jeff Agoos may not have international-level speed but he does a lot of other things well and has been dominant on defense.

Equally important has been Richie Williams. When the defensive midfielder was out early in the season, D.C. United floundered.

Midfielder Marco Etcheverry continues as the best offensive player in Major League Soccer, and has been helped by the revival of forward Jaime Moreno.

Tough times are ahead -- with national team commitments shredding the lineup this week, and later during the summer in Copa America and Confederations Cup play. But don't count D.C. United out of a fourth consecutive trip to MLS Cup in November.

Former coach Bruce Arena says it is probably the "most talented" team in MLS. Today, he said during a U.S. Soccer conference call that he has been impressed by the surging Tampa Bay Mutiny in the East, and that the New England Revolution -- beset by injuries the first two months -- figures to challenge strongly the second half of the season.

In the West, he praised Colorado Rapids for picking up strong international players and a "couple of good trades," undoubtedly referring to the acquisition of defensive midfielder Matt McKeon from Kansas City. He looks at Dallas Burn and defending champion Chicago Fire as other strong contenders.

Arena, now coach of the U.S. national team, said there is no need to apologize for the low scores in MLS this year. "Coaches are the ones who are getting fired, and they are going to do everything to stay in games," he said. "Teams need to have good defensive shape, and that's what happening. Any good league, teams will play more defense. It doesn't mean it's not good soccer. There's a lot of pressure in MLS to do well. And I don't see too many executives getting fired . . . just coaches."

Former D.C. United wing midfielder Tony Sanneh, now a regular with Bundesliga (Germany) third-place finisher Hertha Berlin, said "nine out of 10 teams" in Germany "are not better than D.C. United."

Appearing on the call with Arena, he downplayed the transition from MLS to the Bundesliga: "It's just soccer."

He did say there was more emphasis in practice overseas on off-the-ball training (in other words, running), while there was more time spent on-the-ball in D.C. United mini-scrimmages. His emergence as a late-season starter in Germany surprised many in the U.S. soccer community.

"We don't respect ourselves that much," he said, referring to the equally stunning success of wing midfielder Frankie Hejduk with Bundesliga second-place finisher Bayer Leverkusen. "We're not willing to take the risk (of going overseas). If me and Frankie and others do well, there is less of a risk factor for others (to go overseas)."

These may not be words Major League Soccer wants to hear. Neither Sanneh nor Hejduk were regarded as star players in MLS, yet they are making at least twice what they would be domestically -- and starting on world-class teams as well.

Arena was asked about the status of Dallas attacking midfielder Jason Kreis, who is No. 2 in MLS scoring with 10 goals and five assists. "We're going to need to bring him in . . . I'm not sure positionally where he fits in."

In other words, is the former Duke star a midfielder or forward?

Arena said some national team veterans, who haven't played this year as he is looking at new faces, have been impressive, and may warrant a recall. He particularly cited defender Marcelo Balboa of the Colorado Rapids. He also mentioned midfielder John Harkes of New England, dropped last year by then-coach Steve Sampson: "The possibility still exists . . . "

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at

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