In MLS, given the relative parity and thin rosters, any team can have a howler at any point in the season. But, when you’re DC United and you’re specifically trying to dig your way out of an early season hole, it’s just unacceptable to put on the kind of performance they displayed this past weekend. It’s one thing to play hard and just not have the goods on any given day, but it’s quite another thing to mail it in and make shocking mental mistakes in losing to a team that is ten pegs behind you in skill to put it mildly, and who seemed to be trying to give you every opportunity to stay in the match.
Let’s face it RSL is not good. They hadn’t won in 16 games. They’d fired their coach, they’re remaking their roster, and they’d only just begun playing hard enough to simply stay competitive in games, much less actually deserve to win one. For DC to play so badly to be the team that RSL finally beats is not a good omen especially given the way DC lost.
RSL has one real chance to score and that’s to use speed over the top. All United’s defense had to do was pressure the ball enough to keep RSL from getting a good look down the field, and failing that, to at least contain the speed guys. They couldn’t do it. No pressure on the ball and criminal mistakes in covering Findley.
It’s a simple defensive concept. You contain guys that are faster than you and you deny the ball to guys that are better than you. Cut off the angles and get in the way of a speed guy and he’ll cough up the ball 99 times out of 100 (in MLS anyway). Try and reach to deny the ball, and more often than not, you’ll lose the ensuing footrace. There’s simply no reason to try and deny Findley the ball as he is not good enough to beat you one on one.
Erpen and Boswell both tried to deny the ball to Findley instead of containing him which gave him the perfect opportunities to burn DC. It’s not like Findley was a surprise to them as they’d got a taste of his speed three weeks ago when he played for LA. It’s also not like they weren’t prepared for the RSL’s plan of attack either as all the quotes after the game said that they were expecting balls over the top. The simple lack of discipline to follow a game plan and use common sense is far worse than just getting beat by a nice play.
Erpen especially is treading on thin ice. If he’s fallen back to his old ways of loose passes and schizophrenic decision making, then DC might need to rethink his whole value to the team. He’d been playing so well and the switch to a 4-4-2 was primarily for his benefit, but if he can’t stay consistent, then DC will always be on the knife edge of disaster. Physical mistakes can happen to any player and are not really something to be worried about, but repeated mental mistakes in how you play the ball and guard a player are enormously troubling in a third year player.
Also, you have to question Nolly’s value to the team if that’s the way he tries to instill confidence in the coach to play him should Perkins ever need to come out. Now, neither of the two breakaways were easy saves, but you’ve got to have the reflexes to come up with at least one of them to keep your team in the game. Mudslides ooze down a hillside faster than Nolly did dropping to cover those shots. And he was waving at crosses like he was trying to shoo a bat out of his living room. Frankly, Soehn’s judgement has to come in question here for even playing him since he’s never given any indication of competence in any MLS game before and sure didn’t this time either. Maybe he’d been tearing up practices and deserved a shot, but that performance was hardly inspiring.
Now having got that rant out of my system, my real concern is the play of the midfield on this team. The 4-4-2 had looked like a panacea especially after the dynamic play they showed when Olsen struck for three goals against NY. But, if they can’t keep any kind of consistency in connecting on passes or finding each other on the field, or even putting pressure on the opposition, then United is in real trouble if they expect more than a mediocre season.
Gomez and Olsen showed very little of the attacking runs and fluid switching that was so successful against the Red Bulls and Fire. Fred was a little better, but not up to standard either. However, having a bad offensive day can happen (and seems to happen to this team more often than not), but to not even contest the control of the midfield is heinous. RSL was hardly ever pressured into mistakes or had their plays broken up. They made unforced errors on their own, and tried to give the ball back to DC quite often, but United was having none of that and just ceded the ball back for them to try again. RSL’s midfield is hardly better than Chicago’s banged up midfield, yet we allowed them all the room they needed to make the plays to beat us.
And there’s no sparing of the rod in assessing the forwards either. Dyachenko was invisible, and rarely made an aggressive play, but he’s still young and Emilio all but abandoned him to face his destiny alone. In true Moreno fashion, Emilio dropped way too far back in midfield to help out, but he simply does not have the skill set to pull off that kind of play. Moreno can and does often get away with doing that, but all Emilio did was effectively eliminate the target player we needed in order to move the team up the field. In a 4-4-2, the forwards have to play in tandem and have to stay upfield. It’s as simple as that.
These are all mental mistakes and lack of heart. I have no problem with DC getting beat, but to lose the way they did is very troubling and makes me wonder if this season is really hanging in the balance. There are positives to be sure, especially in the play of new faces like Fred and Kpene, and the way Josh Gros showed a dramatic improvement in his defensive play, and the fact that Emilio is still scoring goals even when the team is not doing well, but overall there just seems to be too many flaws in the system.
If you think about this season from a slightly different perspective, things don’t point to this debacle against RSL as being a one game aberration. We have gotten drummed by a good team (KC) and a bad team (RSL), lost or gotten lucky ties to teams playing well (Rapids, Crew, NE, LA) and beaten teams when they’ve had an off day themselves (Chivas, Houston, Fire, NY). We’ve only actually played well against a decent team one time. Toronto. That’s it. Maybe Chivas and NY if you want to say those teams were playing their best in those games which I dispute.
But even adding them that means DC has played their best three times in eleven games, and played decent in maybe three more. Which means in five of eleven games DC has played way below their ability. Or have they? Is this kind of inconsistent performance the norm? When this plays out, will one game over .500 be good enough come playoff time? United has made their excuses and showed some signs of improvement here and there, but if they expect to be among the best in the league when all’s said and done, they simply have to play a lot smarter and with way more effort a lot more regularly than they have done.