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Scouting Report: DC United, Take 2

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Julius James has emerged as a solid defender for DC United.
Julius James has emerged as a solid defender for DC United.

Whatever was wrong with DC United a couple of months ago, it can safely be said that it is behind them.

Since starting the season with three points in their first nine games, the Union have now claimed points in five of their last six matches and gone 2-3-1 in the process. 

After scoring just four goals and allowing 18 during that horrid start, they have broken even with their opponents, 7-7. After failing to register a shutout during their first 10, they have earned two clean sheets in their past five matches.

Even more impressive is the fact that they've accomplished this turnaround while playing one of the tougher parts of their schedule.

The six teams they've played during their run of succes have a collective record of 39-19-31, four of them are in playoff positions and the last four matches have all been on the road. In United's one loss during that stretch -- 2-0 at Columbus -- it took an uncalled handball and a 87th minute goal to decide the outcome.

To be sure, this team is still a work in progress. No one is claiming that United is going to make a run at the MLS Cup or even become a credible threat to push for the playoffs -- that awful start all but sealed their fate.

What this team does seem capable of doing is making life very difficult for teams like the Sounders, who have already dropped a 3-2 decision at home against DC.

The fact that Thursday's game marks the first time United have played at RFK Stadium since June 5 hardly seems to make matters any easier.

"We know we need to get three points at home. We have to," United midfielder, and former Sounder, Stephen King said. "We know coming in that it's not going to be easy, but we need to get three points from these next two games. Seattle is going to be a battle; it's going to be tough. I know those guys very well. For me, it's just going to be another fun game just like when we played there. To play against friends and people who I played with for 15 months will be a lot of fun."

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A couple results to the contrary -- they've scored three goals twice in the past six matches -- United has accomplished their turnaround mainly by shoring up their defense.

After dealing with injuries and inconsistency, DC has essentially settled on a backline of Jordan Graye, Julius James, Dejan Jakovic and Devon McTavish. The four of them aren't necessarily spectacular, but each has their moments.

James has shown a willingness to get forward on set pieces and create havoc in the opposing box. He's also one of the team's more physical players, rarely shying away from contact. Along with Jakovic, the duo has helped allow goalkeeper Troy Perkins to recover from what was looking to be a disastrous season.

Since allowing at least two goals in each of his first six starts, Perkins has allowed a total of five goals in his past five starts. These are hardly numbers that force you to immediately recall the fact that he was the MLS Keeper of the Year in 2006 -- and the tender age of 23 -- but they are a huge improvement nonetheless.

Perkins has appeared far more confident and has avoided any of the gaffes that seemed to plague him early on and ultimately led to his temporary benching behind 19-year-old Bill Hamid.

The offense has certainly shown improvement recently, but it has yet to establish any kind of focal point.

Andy Najar has shown much promise and certainly has some impressive skills, but there are few that believe that the 17-year-old is currently capable of carrying an offense.

The fact that Najar is tied for the team lead with two goals would seem to speak to the lack of offensive punch.

Chris Pontius, as Sounders fans no doubt realize, has shown some promise, but has so far failed to produce much outside of that two-goal game at Seattle. Similarly, Santino Quaranta has looked very good at times -- against New York, for instance, he was especially dangerous -- but has failed to really produce anything of substance.

All three players could very well benefit from the impending addition of two recently signed international players, at least one of whom will likely debut Thursday.

If Pablo Hernandez -- an Argentine forward, who's on loan from Urguguayan side Club Defensor Sporting (not the player of the same name who played for Valencia FC, as I originally reported) -- ends up starting at forward as expected, that would certainly add some dynamism to the United attack. (The other signee, central midfielder Branko Boskovic, is less likely to start as he has not been with the team as long as Hernandez.)

The Sounders, who are completing a stretch in which they will have played five matches in 18 days, will need to be sharp. As improved as they looked on Sunday, they were only able to manage one point. If the playoffs are to remain even a remote possibility, three points is practically a necessity.