Another strong defensive effort went by the wayside as DC United’s finishing failed them once more, and Chicago’s Damani Ralph capitalized on one of just two shots on goal for the Fire in a 1-0 win before 21,235 at RFK Stadium.
Ralph’s goal in the 57th minute came on the only major defensive breakdown of the afternoon for United (1-2-1), turning on central defender Ryan Nelsen and finding an open path to the goal. His right-footed shot beat goalkeeper Nick Rimando to the left corner.
United, meanwhile, took 16 shots, and when they were not missing the target, were being stonewalled by Fire goalkeeper Henry Ring, who had eight saves.
“This is the thing that I really don’t appreciate,” said United coach Peter Nowak. “We had so many chances in the first half–the first 20 minutes–we’re supposed to finish this game.” He rued the team’s lackluster finishing, and said United were punished for their failed chances, which left few blameless.
“We missed chances to close it down in LA, in New York and today,” Nowak said. That was very significant.”
Though looking tired after four matches in the past two weeks and going scoreless in MLS play for 326 minutes, the Fire had enough legs to hold off United, despite being without forward Ante Razov and defender Evan Whitfield.
“We haven’t overpressed, I think,” said Fire coach Dave Sarachan “We’ve created chances in games. And that’s important. Scoring goals is tough. It was getting on the borderline of frustration, but our guys kept plugging away and it was a relief–a big relief.”
DC United are left once again to rue their missed opportunities–opportunities that came early and often. They began in the 2nd minute on Ben Olsen’s line drive from distance that Ring saved, and ended with Bobby Convey shooting high in 2nd half stoppage time.
In the first half alone, Earnie Stewart missed high from inside the six-yard box (6th minute), Dema Kovalenko was unable to beat Ring from10 yards (26th minute), and Ring came up big once again, parrying an Olsen long-range shot over the bar in the 38th minute.
Olsen said this season’s failure to finish is unlike the past three or four seasons, noting that United are “playing a nice, relaxed, possession game.”
“The feel is different,” Olsen said. “Our chances, we’re getting more quality chances and we’re playing a better style. I’m confident that if we keep this stuff up, we’re going to win more games than we lose.” Nelsen agreed with that assessment and said they are dominating teams this season more than in past seasons.
Kovalenko’s first half chance, in particular, showed off DC United’s quality combination play, on display with frequency in the early portion of matches throughout this season.
The former Fire midfielder fed Olsen at midfield, and while Olsen was streaking through the center of the defense, Kovalenko made an overlapping run and took Olsen’s return pass. His shot forced Ring to knock down the ball at close range. The Fire, as they did all afternoon, came away unscathed.
DC United had more chances go awry in the second half, starting in the 46th minute as Ring dived to save Alecko Eskandarian’s 12-yard shot.
Two minutes later, a mostly-inactive Rimando made his only save of the match on Andy Williams, who made a nice cut-back move left of goal on midfielder Brian Carroll.
Rimando could do little with Ralph’s shot though, as Nelsen–calling Ralph’s goal “stupid, soft, silly”–was left helpless on the play. Olsen, for his part, admitted he was late in helping.
“I thought somebody else was going for him . . . He just runs fucking straight through the middle of us and walks through the goal,” Nelsen said. “It’s just pathetic, pathetic, just bad defending.”
Defender Bryan Namoff, not involved in the play, but with a good view, said it was “a simple breakdown.”
“He played good defense on him,” Namoff said. “And usually in that situation we have back pressure from the midfield and I think that’s what he thought was going to happen. As he’s coming back into the position, thinking that he’s got to get back in position, [Ralph] turns and he was able to run through the defense and he found a hole” and went through defender Mike Petke and Nelsen on his way to scoring the only goal of the match.
Namoff said some of the midfield players were holding on other players and did not release to help Nelsen.
United inserted Ronald Cerritos in the 62nd minute for Eskandarian, who except for his early-second half shot, had a quiet match. Cerritos, though, was even more quiet, not getting off a single shot.
Ten minutes later, Freddy Adu and Josh Gros came on, and while they were active, it left United without key veterans Jaime Moreno and Stewart late in the match.
Adu’s inexperience showed just four minutes after he entered, as he pulled down Williams. Adu said it was in retaliation for an elbow to the face. Nevertheless, it gave Adu a dubious league record–that of youngest player to be booked.
“I think I did deserve a yellow, because I just took him out,” Adu said. “I pulled his shirt and I just took him out because I caught an elbow to the face.”
Gros took a pass from Adu in the 86th minute and fired on target from 25 yards, but Ring was in position for the save. Adu had his own chance a minute later, as Nelsen cut off a pass and chipped to Adu in the left corner of the box. Without the ball hitting the ground, Adu touched the ball to himself before firing over top of the goal from an acute angle.
Adu is chomping at the bit for a larger role and his first MLS start.
“My comfort level is 100 percent now,” Adu said. “Now I’m ready to go out there and play day-in and day-out every single day. I’m ready for 90 minutes. I’m ready.”
Nowak is starting to receive criticism for his substitutions, but he defended his choices, and reiterated that chances have to be finished, though as Olsen said, that “can’t be coached.”
“The chances that [we] have, somehow we’ve got to start putting them away,” Stewart said. “That makes things on the defensive end, makes it a little bit easier too. Now every little breakdown that we get is pretty deadly.”
DC United fell to third place in the Eastern Conference with the loss, while Chicago, with just one goal on the season in four matches, move ahead of United and just behind the MetroStars. Next Saturday, United travel to San Jose in a rematch of the opener, hoping for the same result.
Sarachan called his team’s lack of finishing a matter of “constipation.” DC United, unfortunately, know that feeling all too well.
“Like usual, we dominated a game, and we’ve lost it,” Nelsen said. “And it’s sickening to play a game like that and have that many chances. They have one stupid chance and score, and we have 10 and don’t. It kills you. It kills us. We’ve done it quite a few times so far already this season.”
Notes: This was the first time Nowak faced his former team since taking over as coach for DC United. . . . The first 5,000 fans received Freddy Adu bobbleheads. . . . The last time these two teams met was last season’s Eastern Conference semifinals, where the Fire won each leg by 2-0 margins. In the 2003 regular season, United led the series with a 2-1-1 mark. . . . Defender Brandon Prideaux was once again a healthy scratch, and has played just five minutes this season. . . . Brian Carroll, Mike Petke and Bryan Namoff have played every minute of every match thus far.
Adu Unofficial Stat Tracker
Minutes: 18+ (4 min. stoppage)
Tackled off ball: 2
Fouls Committed: 1
Fouls Suffered: 2
DC United 0–0—-0
CHI — Damani Ralph 1 (Andy Williams 1) 57
Chicago Fire — Henry Ring, C.J. Brown, Jim Curtin, Kelly Gray, Logan Pause, Justin Mapp (Dipsy Selolwane 64), Chris Armas, Andy Williams (Craig Capano 88), DaMarcus Beasley, Nate Jaqua, Damani Ralph. Substitutes Not Used: D.J. Countess, Leonard Griffin, Sumed Ibrahim.
TOTAL SHOTS: 12 (4 tied with 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 2 (Damani Ralph 1, Andy Williams 1); FOULS: 18 (3 tied with 3); OFFSIDE: 0; CORNERS: 5 (5 tied with 1); SAVES: 8 (Henry Ring 8)
DC United — Nick Rimando, Bryan Namoff, Ryan Nelsen, Mike Petke, Earnie Stewart (Joshua Gros 72), Brian Carroll, Dema Kovalenko, Ben Olsen, Bobby Convey, Alecko Eskandarian (Ronald Cerritos 62), Jaime Moreno (Freddy Adu 72). Substitutes Not Used: Kevin Ara, Troy Perkins, Brandon Prideaux, David Stokes, Doug Warren.
TOTAL SHOTS: 16 (Ben Olsen 6); SHOTS ON GOAL: 8 (Ben Olsen 4); FOULS: 21 (Bobby Convey 4, Bryan Namoff 4); OFFSIDE: 2 (Alecko Eskandarian 1, Ben Olsen 1); CORNERS: 8 (Bobby Convey 5); SAVES: 1 (Nick Rimando 1)
CHI — Nate Jaqua (caution; Reckless Foul) 20
DC — Bryan Namoff (caution; Persistent Infringement) 28
CHI — Kelly Gray (caution; Tackle from Behind) 34
DC — Mike Petke (caution; Reckless Foul) 69
CHI — C.J. Brown (caution; Reckless Foul) 74
DC — Freddy Adu (caution; Pushing, Holding) 76
Referee: Ricardo Valenzuela
Referee’s Assistants: -Kermit Quisenberry; Bahij Salman
4th Official: Erich Simmons
Time of Game: 1:53