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Monday MLS Breakdown: Old Bond Leads Pena To New Home At D.C. United

By Kyle McCarthy

WASHINGTON – D.C. United captain Jaime Moreno knew his club needed an experienced defender. As any helpful leader might do, he proposed a solution.

Admittedly, Moreno's idea to bring in close friend and former Bolivian international teammate Juan Manuel Pena merited some skepticism. Pena possessed an impressive resume after a career spent predominantly in La Liga, but the 37-year-old defender left Segunda Division club Celta Vigo at the end of the 2008-2009 campaign and presumably retired.

External events – and a few persuasive arguments by Moreno – eventually ensured Pena earned the chance to compel United to extend his career.

“It wasn't easy because they weren't sure about it because of his age and the time he didn't play,” Moreno said. “I understood, but then unfortunately, (Marc) Burch got hurt and then the opportunity came for Juan. I think we're pleased that he came here.”

United general manager Dave Kasper pushed aside his doubts – “When you look at his age and his layoff, question marks come up,” he admitted – as Moreno lobbied on Pena's behalf. United eventually offered Pena the chance to join the team on trial during its preseason trip to Mexico in early March. It didn't take long for the veteran defender to dispel Kasper's concerns.

“The first two days of training when we were in Mexico, our eyes opened,” Kasper said. “Then we played the match against Santos and he was great.”

Kasper and United entered the offseason looking for the type of presence Pena could provide. Veteran goalkeeper Troy Perkins returned to eradicate a tumultuous situation between the sticks, but the defensive core required additional aid and vocal direction. Canadian international defender Dejan Jakovic established himself as a fixture in the starting XI in 2009, but the 24-year-old hasn't quite developed the vocal presence required to marshal a rearguard. Projected fullbacks Devon McTavish (inserted at right back as Bryan Namoff continues to recover from post-concussion symptoms only to suffer a groin inury) and Rodney Wallace are better suited to follow directions in the wide areas rather than trying to align the group from an unusual perspective.

Pena stepped into the breach and filled the vocal vacancy. With the La Liga experience gained during his years with Real Valladolid and Villarreal in tow, the central defender directed proceedings, exuded confidence and settled down his younger teammates. New United coach Onalfo kept Pena in the side as preseason progressed and noted how his technical ability – honed alongside Moreno at the esteemed Tahuichi Academy in Santa Cruz – could contribute to D.C.'s possession-oriented approach.

“He was a big part of our success during the last couple of weeks of preseason,” Onalfo said. “He brings a calming influence to our team. He's a very good passer of the ball. When you play against teams that drop off and play low pressure, he's a guy that can really help from the back forward in terms of playing it quickly and playing balls over distance to break down low pressure. He brings the experience that our young team needs.”

It turns out United and the city it calls home offered Pena exactly what he needed to continue his career. Moreno talked up the positives of the nation's capital to his old friend and the message hit home. Pena said he felt comfortable enough with the American experience and his new teammates to take the plunge.

“When I finished with Celta, I had many proposals, but I didn't like (anything),” Pena said. “When you have some more years, you have to think about your family and you have to feel good. When I came here, I felt very good. The guys are great and the coaches are too. I feel very good, so that's why I decided to come here. I hope to do well. I try to do my best for the team.”

Pena showed his flashes of his best as he made his MLS debut in Saturday night's 2-0 defeat to New England. Although the Revolution didn't offer much in the attacking third until Kenny Mansally grabbed a quick-fire brace with ten minutes to play, Pena coped well with the few threats he faced and distributed the ball with vision. His pace isn't searing, but his experience provides an extra half step when required. A moment of hesitation encouraged Mansally's wonderfully struck second, but the lapse didn't erase the belief Pena could provide a stable presence in United's back four.

At this point in his career, Pena craves consistency on and off the field and thinks he may have found it in his new home. As he reflected on his decision to assume one last challenge in his professional career, Pena referenced Moreno as a key factor.

“When you know you have some friends in the team, it's easy,” Pena said.

Week Two – Questions, Thoughts and Answers

Star Man – Kenny Mansally, New England forward

The Gambian international entered what can charitably be described as a dull game in the 68th minute and spurred the Revolution to a surprising victory. Mansally's cool finish after a near-post deflection stood as the match-winner, but his stunning second – a curled finish tucked inside the far post – provided the one lingering moment of quality in an otherwise forgettable match.

Biggest Disappointment of the Weekend – Maicon Santos' shocking miss

Chivas USA hasn't threatened much in its two scoreless defeats to open the season, but the Brazilian forward managed to squander the type of chance strikers dream about in their sleep in Thursday night's 2-0 defeat to Los Angeles. Jesus Padilla probably should have done better with his initial opportunity in the 80th minute, but the rebound squirted out kindly to Santos six yards from goal. With Donovan Ricketts adrift after making the first save, Santos skied his chance over the bar instead of tucking home the equalizer.

The Weekend XI

1. Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis bit his tongue after Jamison Olave handed Houston a 2-1 victory on Thursday night by giving away two penalties in short order, but Olave's hamhanded challenges threw the Dynamo a lifeline after a rather indifferent first half showing by the home side. Olave boasts perhaps the best physical tools of any centerback in the league, but those physical gifts won't matter if he doesn't eradicate the persistent mental errors that mar his play.

2. Houston will have to dig deep to find a way to create offense without Brian Ching in the lineup for the next several weeks. Ching hurt his left hamstring in the first half of the victory, leaving Dominic Kinnear shorthanded up front with Cam Weaver still struggling with a right knee strain. Luis Angel Landin probably isn't 90 minutes fit at this point, while Dominic Oduro often flatters to deceive. Neither striker particularly suits Houston's preference to play through the wide areas either, so Geoff Cameron will have to continue to influence matches – as he did in the second half against RSL – to provide another attacking avenue.

3. Edson Buddle's brace staked Los Angeles to a 2-0 victory and stoked whispers of a potential recall to the U.S. national team in Ching's absence. Those calls appear a bit hasty, but they do reflect the Galaxy's striker increased confidence in front of goal and the quality of service Buddle has received in his first two games.

4. After watching Chivas USA in its first two matches, the Red-and-White faces an imminent shopping spree at the back – Michael Umana hasn't quite erased the doubts sowed by his abortive stint with the Galaxy, has he? – and up front in order to bolster a squad that looks short in both departments.

5. Colorado coach Gary Smith tempted fate by naming Marvell Wynne in central defense for a second consecutive weekend and suffered the consequences in Saturday's 2-2 home draw with Chicago. Collins John muscled Wynne out of the way to score Chicago's opener before the former TFC defender hauled down Patrick Nyarko to set up Brian McBride's equalizer from the penalty spot. With Julien Baudet presumably close to a return and Scott Palguta an option on the bench, Smith should choose between Wynne and Kosuke Kimura at right back and consider this experiment closed.

6. “They have two very good players with different styles,” Chicago coach Carlos de los Cobos told the Associated Press after Conor Casey and Omar Cummings each grabbed a goal in the draw. “We gave them space and too much time to think in the first half. I think we improved in the second half.”

7. “It's about getting points on the board,” Revolution coach Steve Nicol said after his organized side smashed and grabbed its way to victory at RFK Stadium. “We'd love to win the Barcelona way, but not everybody can.”

8. D.C. enjoyed plenty of possession as the Revs ceded ground and kept their shape, but United lacked the creative engine required to dictate the tempo and slice open the New England rearguard. Tidy midfield passing is all well and good until the ideas stall in the attacking third and United didn't have any semblance of ingenuity to break the deadlock on Saturday night.

9. New York snapped a 29-game road winless streak (0-21-8) with a 1-0 win in Seattle on Saturday night. “We talked about it and we said it has to stop right now,” streak-snapper Mac Kandji told the Associated Press. “We did just like we practiced and I think that’s why we were so successful.”

10. Red Bulls coach Hans Backe missed the match with stomach pains. The kicker: New York's team hotel doesn't carry Fox Soccer Channel, so the Swedish coach trekked all the way across the country to not watch his team break its road duck.

11. Pat Noonan could turn into a useful addition for a Seattle side in need of some additional creativity in the attacking third. Noonan offered a change of pace and a constant threat to the Red Bulls' resolute back four once he arrived as a second-half substitute on Saturday night. Although right midfield isn't perhaps his best spot and he doesn't offer a natural partnership for Steve Zakuani's blistering pace on the left wing, Noonan may help Sounders FC simply by offering a dash of ingenuity behind Sigi Schmid's current front two of Freddie Ljungberg and Fredy Montero. Seattle needs a bit of something to help boost an attack that huffs and puffs without breaking through and Noonan could help fill the void until Blaise Nkufo – a scorer again at the weekend for FC Twente – arrives in the summer.

Kyle McCarthy writes the Monday MLS Breakdown and frequently writes opinion pieces during the week for Goal.com. He also covers the New England Revolution for the Boston Herald and MLSsoccer.com. Contact him with your questions or comments at kyle.mccarthy@goal.com and follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

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