Seems odd that high level competition prior to league play can actually hurt a team’s development, but that appears to be exactly the case for the second year in a row. DC lost heartbreakingly last year in Mexico, and immediately ran off three straight losses in MLS. This year, it was a loss before going to Mexico, a superficial win over Toronto and a futile win over Pachuca at home, before reeling off two straight losses and counting in MLS.
Coach Chad Aston put it this way after yesterday's practice. “I’ve listened to all the things we’re saying right now as a coaching staff about all the things that are happening this year, and it’s almost and exact replica of last year. It’s the same points we are making, almost the same problems we are having. I just don’t have an answer for why it happens. The one thing I know for sure is just how much we put into the two games against Pachuca. I can’t emphasize enough how much it takes to go down there and play at altitude, then coming back being two goals behind and the effort we put into that game. It’s almost even harder when you put that effort into the game and you still come up short. It’s a very empty feeling. It just takes a while to get over. We don’t know for sure it’s the exact same thing as last year, but we’re hoping that’s all it is right now. Time will tell.”
One of the things that is making their current situation different than last year, and more difficult to correct, is the turnover on the roster. While Emilio and Fred were new to the team last year, they were merely two important role players added to an already established core group. This year, the entire spine of the team is new, including Niell who has played a ton of minutes for the only recently healthy Jaime Moreno.
Dane Murphy summed it up pretty well, “One thing that is hard for people who aren’t here everyday to realize is that we are so new to each other. The core group is so new. Although we’ve been together for over a month, it takes a while to gel to get the right formations, the right players in the right spots. Understanding how each player plays. It takes longer than most people think. Once that’s fluid and everything’s flowing and everybody knows their role and how everyone else is going to play, things are going to start clicking. Like in the Pachuca game, when we got things going, we were untouchable. If we can get that to be consistent, offensively and defensively, knowing what each other want to do and need to do, we’ll be fine.”
Bryan Namoff also added that even with the flashes of success they’ve shown, that the team still has consistency issues to work out, “I was hoping we would click from the get go. We saw signs of it when we took a step forward, but then all of a sudden we took two steps backward. Now, you look back and it’s almost like history repeating itself. I look at that, but then I look at all the different faces we brought in. It’s such a different team, we wanted it to happen overnight, but it didn’t. Now, we need to make the adjustments, and it’s going to be a slow process to make sure it clicks. Once we get it right, I’m sure we’ll start moving along. It’s just making sure we’re all aware of each other and playing as a team. Once we do that, then we can start seeing a lot more success, and then see if we can continue that success because we need to start winning games.”
But what exactly does the team need to do? Why has the team been giving up soft goals, and why has the offense outside of a few stunning chances, been flat and static? Clearly a team that allows Adam Moffet to dance through the box like George Best, or that struggles like a drunk sheriff to pull the trigger in and around the goal, has a number of things to correct.
Jaime Moreno and Namoff made it clear that from watching video of themselves so far this year, it is a whole team issue, not just a simple personal mistake here and there. Moreno said “We watched video of ourselves and realized that our tactics, we weren’t doing a good enough job tactically.” “If we have room between the defenders and forwards, that’s when we start having trouble.”
Namoff was more expansive, “We watched video of Crew game and saw that it was really a lot of little problems that caused breakdowns. From one breakdown to another it just caused a domino effect. Our problems stem more from an overall shape issue. Our first pressure needs to come from the attackers and when we fail to have pressure all over the field we tend to have problems. [For example] The little breakdowns that occur can start all the way up from the forwards and come back through midfield and by the time it gets to us, it can be too late to solve. If we can correct those little things before it gets all the way to the backline, I think it will be a lot easier for us [overall].”
But what about the obvious concentration lapses and flat out poor individual defending at times, as well as the poor touches in front of goal or at crucial times? Namoff agreed that “there’s a mental aspect to it as well. We need to fight for an entire 90 minutes. I think there are times we get caught off guard and it might be concentration issues or positional issues. We need to have both those sides on Saturday, from a physical standpoint and a mental awareness too.”
So, clearly the team understands the situation they are in and the problems they have, but that is only the first step to getting back on track. How is this week or the next month going to be any different? Well, for one thing everyone was adamant that this ten day break is working wonders on the team overall by allowing for some rest and some time to actually prepare tactically for a specific MLS opponent. With five games in fifteen days including travel to Kansas, Mexico, and Utah before returning to play the Crew in a short week, the team has not had a normal week to get themselves mentally and physically set for MLS competition.
Namoff said this break has been great for the team. “The ten days between games have given us time to recover. The rest was nice. A full week of training to really get to go through all the things we need to work on from a tactical standpoint. So, we can cut out all the things that hurt us in the past couple games, try to correct them in training, and hopefully overlap that into the game on Saturday.”
Moreno was even more direct and specific, “Our pressure has to start from the forwards, we have to have better pressure [all over the field], and defensively we have to stay compact. We know that, we are getting the chance to work on that, now we just have to get out there and do the best job that we can. Just play better football, it’s very simple. Is very clear if we keep a zero in our end, we have a better chance to win as we are always going to create chances. Forwards, we have to put our chances away, that’s what we’ve been working on, that’s what we need to do on Saturday.”
Chad Ashton made it clear that no one on the team is happy with their start, all of them are working very hard to correct everything, and that the team as a whole seems to finally be finding a rhythm now that they’ve had some solid time at home to get into their natural cycle of training and games. However, he also cautioned that you can’t just say your problems are solved and expect to just go out and start a win streak.
He put it like this and he gets the last word. “The mentality is that you still have to go out there and prove yourself each week. Even more so now that you’re on the bottom looking up. To me there’s your motivation right there. You’ve got to be better and you’ve got to want to get to the top of the table. [But] you can only do it one game at a time, three points at a time. What we’ve got to do right now is put together a good performance on Saturday.”
RSL and MLS, look out. The sleeping dragon might be on the verge of a fiery awakening.