Ah… I love the Tour de France and I am especially glad the MLS schedulers took it easy on me this year so that I could indulge my July passion without impinging too much on my true love, DC United. However, much like the Tour, DC United’s season has gone over the Pyrenees, has very few flat stages left, and they had better be ready for the big mountains ahead which will decide their fate this year.
DC United’s hideous record last year had but one tarnished silver lining, the fact that their schedule would be much lighter than in previous years. The lighter work load has most certainly played a big part in their much improved start this season, for example. Like they say, you can’t win the Tour in the first week, but you can lose it. NY, Dallas, SJ, etc. are all a case in point as they are essentially out of contention already much like Cadel Evans and Dennis Menchov. But DC have largely made the most of their season so far and are solidly near the top of the East with half the season gone.
Unfortunately, that’s a lot more like Garmin than Astana. DC is up there in the overall classification, like a Christian Van de Velde, but Astana are the clear favorites so far. Interestingly, they do have some leadership issues similar to Astana though. Just like Lance and Contador duel for who’s the strongest rider on Astana, the youngsters, Pontius, Wallace and Quaranta have been a lot closer to leading United than Gomez, Moreno, or Emilio.
The old vets obviously have the smarts and the experience for solids results like Moreno beating Dallas and road points like Gomez earned in Seattle and Columbus, but the signature moments this year have come from the rookies in NY and LA, just like Contador’s breathtaking surge up Arcalis and his stunning prologue are way more memorable than Lance taking advantage of the crosswinds into La Grande Motte.
Still, now that we’re all coming out of the rest days, it’s time switch gears away from bike racing and see where United is at and what the future holds. As mentioned DC is near the top of the East, tied with the Crew, one point behind the Fire, two points ahead of Toronto; although the Fire and TFC both have two games in hand on DC. Still, that’s not a bad effort for the first half of the season. However, 24 points puts them solidly mid-table overall tied with Colorado and LA for example as well as the Crew, which is not so good when you consider the relatively easy part of their schedule is over.
That three month grace period where they started the year averaging a mere one game a week is rapidly coming to an end as a brief glance at the upcoming schedule will attest. Assuming DC beats Rochester at home next week and qualifies for CONCACAF Champions League by beating LA Firpo – both of which are extremely likely scenarios – United will essentially play two games a week for the remainder of the season (three months btw) counting all competitions.
Starting with the upcoming Colorado match, DC will play 7 games in the next 3 weeks ending with an exhibition against some Spanish club, that should be easy. Then after a mere 6 days of rest, they will play 10 games over the next month, one of which would be a Cup final. They do get a weekend off in September followed right away by 4 games in 10 days, and another six day break in October followed immediately by 3 games in a week heading into the MLS Cup Playoffs. Right. Should be a piece of cake.
Seriously, that’s 24 games in 90 days for those of you counting. That works out to a game every 3.6 days starting this Saturday until the playoffs in November. The Tour is only in the Alps for 5 days for goodness sake. This looks suspiciously similar to the brutal schedule that crumbled United at the end of last year. I guess we’ll see just exactly how much progress this team has made in a year, and see it under similar conditions.
And that’s not even the worst of it. There’s the travel and limited rosters in MLS made even smaller by United releasing two players and having Barklage out for the rest of the year with a knee injury. So, United has only 20 players at the moment and is facing a situation where they have to fill out their roster and integrate those new players on the fly during the few practice days they have in and around long MLS road trips as well as intercontinental travel to Mexico, Honduras, and either Panama or Trinidad for CONCACAF.
Now, I know what you’re saying. Maybe they lose to the Rhinos and take that Cup final out of play, and maybe they bag CONCACAF and play skells like NE did last year to skip out on the group stage of Champions League by losing to Firpo. Obviously, that would ease up the schedule considerably, taking 7 midweek games away, as well as all that travel too.
However, it would be simply shocking if United failed to qualify for either the Open Cup final or CONCACAF. Obviously, United has the easiest road to the Open Cup final of any of the four teams left, playing a USL1 team at home, while Seattle hosts Houston which is no walkover. It would be criminal to let that chance slip away. As would losing to a Salvadoran team in CONCACAF. No disrespect intended, but MLS teams need to expect to win against the second tier leagues in the region. All praise to Firpo if they pull off the upset, but DC United should be doing their damndest to get into the biggest tournament in the entire region, especially after last year’s debacle, and not be taking anyone lightly.
Frankly, if DC were to tank like NE did against Joe Public last year by not playing anywhere near their best players, then I hope CONCACAF takes away slots for MLS teams in the future. Give ‘em to the USL, they take this tournament seriously at least. But I sincerely hope they is not the case and I would be shocked if United were to pull something like that. So, expect six tough regional matches home and away slotted into the schedule in August, September and finishing up the week before the MS playoffs start after DC defeats Firpo later this month. Nice.
As for the MLS matches left on the schedule for United at least most of them are at RFK, as United finishes up with 5 of their final 6 at home. But, they might need all those points since 5 of their next 7 are away. After Colorado this Saturday, DC touches down in SJ, Houston, Toronto, Chicago, and Dallas with a side trip to El Salvador thrown in too. Now, those of you paying attention so far this season will note DC only has one win on the road this entire season to date, the Miracle Minute in NY. So, expecting results anywhere except maybe SJ and Dallas is obviously a stretch unless something changes drastically.
Even some of the home games left are pretty tough. LA drops by in a month for their annual thrashing of DC in RFK (last year’s match and Bechkam’s first ever match non-withstanding). KC, Seattle, Chivas, the Crew, etc. all are likely tough matches made even tougher by potential midweek travel for CONCACAF.
Bottom line is that DC has handled the early flat stages fairly well (undefeated at home, albeit too many ties), but stumbled a bit in the Pyrenees leaving too many points on the table in road matches they should have won (LA, KC, NE). Now, they have a few more flat stages with Colorado, Rochester, and Firpo at home where they really need to stay near the front of the pack and out of trouble, because a crash now would be disaster with the Alps are looming. It’s a rocky road going away to Houston, Chicago, Dallas, as well as Toluca, Marathon, and somewhere in Panama or Trinidad. All of them are steep climbs and United has not shown a whole lot of pep when the road turns upward as they say in bike racing.
I sure hope United are rested and ready. The easy part is over, the Alps are looming. Champions are determined in the crucible of brutally painful efforts over days upon days. The Black and Red are facing a brutal stretch of matches that will define their season. Last year was full of excuses for United, what will this year bring? A romp up La Ventoux to victory? Or a lazy ride on the last day into Paris with nothing left to play for?