DC United: The Death Dealers

90th minute goals that gain points are the ace on the river, the buzzer beater or hail mary of soccer. No question they are as thrilling as they are rare, so why has DC United been able to pull off these miracles in 3 of their last 5 matches? Conversely, why have they been continually in situations that require them?

Obviously, if you put the game out of reach early, or you are well out of it long before the end, then 90th minute goals are meaningless. United on the other hand, has done neither of those things. So their 4 last minute goals have gained the team 5 points in the standings to put and keep themselves in first place. They also have in effect stolen 7 points from Eastern Conference rivals NE, NY, and TFC all of whom surely assumed they had wins sewn up with only a minute to go.

Now, to put that in better perspective, without those four miracle goals, instead of first place and sitting pretty, DC United would be in 6th place in the East barely one point ahead of the Crew who just won their first match last week. For sure, in that situation the conversations about DC United right now would be a whole lot different, probably bordering on anger and hysteria.

So, which is it? Is United actually the class of the East, or a fraud that needs miracles to remain respectable? To begin answering that, let’s first take a look at the goals themselves.

The ninety minute brigade began their glorious shenanigans with the dramatic NE tie in RFK. Down by one, three class veterans combine to tie the match at the very end. Fred with savvy dive draws the crucial FK, Moreno clips it perfectly to the far post, and Benny of all players manages to get on the end of it and squeeze it in. That salvaged a tie in a match that DC thoroughly dominated, but it’s interesting to note that Fred came in off the bench, and only Simms handcuffing Soehn’s substitution possibilities even kept Jaime and/or Olsen on the field for the full ninety.

The Meadowlands Miracle was a bit different. This time DC had given up the lead and not satisfied with the tie this time actually pulled two goals out of thin air to take all the points. Rookie Chris Pontius started the play with a long diagonal to Quaranta who smacked a stunning first time volley right to Emilio to tuck in as he was being fouled, which tied it up. A very savvy veteran pass from Q and an even more remarkably skilled finish from Minnie the Moocher.

However, the coup de grace was nothing short of winning the lottery. A hopeful Burch kick that Boyzzz Khumalo amazingly poked away from Conway and fumbled accidentally right to Pontius to slam in for the winner. So, three young players, one off the bench, combine for a one in a million play.

Then the Toronto tie was a pretty similar bolt of luck as well, since it was a completely lucky handball call that even put the ball on the spot for Jaime’s purely cold-blooded blast to pull out the tie that United arguably did not deserve. Sure, it was two cagey veterans, Namoff with the dangerous cross and Jaime with the skimmed header that caught Wynne by surprise. But it was way more a cosmic intervention against Toronto then it was a situation where DC created the opportunity for a miracle to happen.

So, you pretty much have the classic scenarios that allow miracle goals. Veterans, who are beyond cool under the ultimate pressure or pure flat out accidents in your favor often from unlikely sources. The two biggest reasons goals at the death are so rare is because typically the most skilled veterans are either subbed out or tired by then, as well as the fact that benevolent accidents are completely unpredictable.

What is interesting for DC United this year is that they are actually bringing in starting quality depth, or in fact actual starters off the bench quite often this year. So not only are veterans staying fresher so making plays late in the match are more possible, but the competition for spots is so intense that veterans and younger players are taking more aggressive chances so that they squeeze into the starting XI. And they are continuing to stay aggressive and make plays so that they beat back the hungry masses behind them on the bench who want their job.

But, if DC is so deep and so hungry to make plays, then why are they even in these tight games so often? Shouldn’t they be hammering teams into submission and locking up games long before the last minute? Why haven’t they been able to put together a solid 90 minutes where they are really never in danger of losing?

Seriously, how and why have United, despite dominating play for long stretches of most games, and only being behind on the scoreboard for less than 85 minutes this entire season, found themselves in a very tight match in every single one of their 9 games?

Oddly enough, I believe they are not able to dominate because they are so deep and consequently they have yet to really settle into a pecking order on the field, and overall system of play on the field, which has scuttled their ability to be consistent.

Think about this. After 9 games so far this year, United has 16 players in triple digits in number of minutes played. They have basically 15 guys who have averaged more than two game’s worth of minutes including all three goalkeepers! Then there are another three more guys with at least a full ninety minutes worth of time on the field. In fact only two players on the entire roster have less than a full game played, one of whom is Francis Doe who was cut a month ago. (Khumalo is the other one, having played only 30 minutes). I doubt there’s a team in the history of the league that can say they’ve used every single player on their roster that many minutes.

Which is all well and good, but that hardly leads to continuity and cohesion on the field. Mistakes, rusty skills, and confusion among players has surely robbed many scoring chances and helped to cause so many wild shots. At the same time it is a stone cold fact that confusion has led to goals more than a few goals being scored on a young and fluid defensive corps. Tough to know who’s got who, and who’s got the ball, or understand exactly when and where a goalkeeper will make calls if there’s always a change of personnel rotating through the positions.

-Which leads to an interesting sidebar on this whole issue. Unquestionably, after last year’s debacle, Soehn was clearly in the hot seat and most coaches in that situation would likely have stuck to veterans and not experimented so much no matter how good rookies and youngsters played in practice. Soehn has not done that and has steadfastly indicated that the best XI each week will play. Simple as that. You gotta admire that gumption because without those four 90 minute miracles pulling DC’s ashes out the fire, Soehn might have been shown the door by now with DC wallowing in sixth place due to so many late game collapses.

But, back to United’s lack of consistency, there’s another side to the need for all these late game heroics, the fact that this team has the heart and skill to overcome their mistakes. There is a lot of teams in MLS that either don’t have the skill or don’t have the desire to really push hard for that final effort at the death because it so rarely pays off. Well, DC has the mindset that they will do whatever it takes to not lose, up to and including the creation of a few miracles. That is an enormous positive overall despite the team being so inconsistent which is maddening.

So, to wrap this up in a bow, DC has gotten some luck for sure, but they are not frauds because they have also earned some of their remarkable late game magic with skill and desire. Still, they are not the class of the league yet either since there is no escaping the fact that they are a mere four miracle goals away from mediocrity. Actually, considering their season so far it’s probably more amazing that they haven’t given up a 90th minute loser yet, so caution in assessing their overall play is certainly called for.

However, at the end of the day, all these close games and a massively experienced bench will almost certainly come in handy come playoff time, which is clearly Soehn’s intent when you consider the hideous playoff performances of recent years. It seems a lock that once they settle on a pecking order and create that unspoken cohesion on the field, they may well become the most feared opponent in the league.

So, don’t ever look away because agonizing mistakes as well as the odd miracle seem to be in store for this team this year. Still, the fact that they’ve been able to limit their actual losses to only one so far this year while blooding so many players is simply incredible. But then again, they are the Death Dealers.

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