DC United’s Goalkeeping Merry Go Round

It’s nice to see the quotes coming out of the DC United communication bunker are all positive and professional. Soehn expressing confidence (or the lack thereof) in all his keepers, and Crayton saying he’s been doing this for years and it’s great to have three keepers who can play at any given time. Nice and lovey-dovey, at least on the surface.

However, I find it extremely unlikely anyone in the DC United organization is at all pleased with the way this saga is playing out from Dave Kaspar on down to the last player on the bench, no one should be happy that Soehn is unwilling to pull the trigger and name a starter.

That’s because goalkeepers are a different animal than any other field player. Soehn’s contention that they should vie for their job from week to week like anyone else is patently ridiculous. I suspect Alan Kelly, God rest his soul, would absolutely agree with me and be appalled at the way his United teams in the past are being held up as an example of why “rotating” goalkeepers is acceptable.

So let’s set that travesty to bed right now. From 1996 to 1999, the Golden Age of DC United soccer by the way when you could have put G.I. Joe with the Kung Fu Grip in the nets and gotten results, DC United used essentially four goalkeepers each of whom was the starter at any given time, but that is the key. Other than part of one year where particularly improbable circumstances forced changes on the fly, DC United always had a “starter” and made that clear.

In 1996, Causey played 19 games and Simpson 13, but I defy anyone to say Simpson was not the lock down starter as soon as he took over the reins in June. Causey was the starter named for the opener and kept that job until June, when he lost it to Simpson (who had missed the early part of the year playing indoor). After June, Causey only played a handful of matches mainly due to the crazy schedule back in those days like one stretch where United played 4 games in 10 days.

But 1997 is really the year Soehn and others are using as their shining example, and United incredibly did use four starters along the way of pretty much running the league table that year. Scott Garlick started the season, when Simpson was again contractually stuck playing indoor until May, and eventually played 13 games that year. Simpson played 7 games, Causey played 6, and Tom Presthus another 6. Sounds like a rotation doesn’t it?

Not really. Simpson was always expected to be the starter once he showed up after the indoor season, so Garlick on loan from the Carolina Dynamo, Causey, and draft pick Presthus were competing to be the interim starter until Simpson showed up. Garlick won the job, but ultimately was not impressive enough despite starting 3-0, and was sent back to the minors in a roster decision when Simpson did show up. So, Causey took over until Simpson was actually ready to play after transitioning into the team and from playing indoors. So, Simpson played 7 of the next 8 games until a knee injury needing surgery forced him out.

Here’s where the story gets interesting. Simpson’s knee scope was only to take a few weeks, so when Causey’s relatively high contract was up he was only offered a 30 day deal. He rejected that and was dealt or waived, I’m not sure which. Anyway, in the interim, DC had Presthus who was impressive in practice as the de facto starter, and they bought Garlick from the Dynamo, so they would have two keepers while Simpson was recuperating.

Little did the team know that Simpson’s simple surgery would turn into a life threatening infection and it would be almost a year before he played again. Anyway, in the meantime, Arena “rotated” Presthus and Garlick for the rest of the season because he really could not decide which one he had more faith in, but even the way he did that was better than the way Soehn is doing it now. Arena played Presthus five straight games (3-2 record), Garlick another five straight (2-3 interestingly) before he made up his mind to go with Garlick.

So Garlick, the guy that started the season on loan, then was dropped and waived before being re-signed ended up starting and winning the MLS Cup that year as well as being the starter for 1998 (25 games) until Presthus took his job late that year, and was pipped for his MLS Cup by a cruel set of referees. Presthus got his Cup in 1999 though, in a similar situation as the year before, this time Presthus came in as the starter (25 games) and Simpson, who really never got back to his pre-surgery form played a handful here and there. Frankly, had Simpson never needed surgery, I doubt Garlick or Presthus would ever have played more than a handful of games or been more than a footnote in United history.

Anyway, bottom line in this whole re-enactment is that barring brutally cruel circumstances, DC always had a “starter” or at the very least gave the competitors for the job significant games before they made a decision, BECAUSE THAT’S THE WAY IT IS DONE! You don’t dangle goalkeepers like you would a field player, they are a completely different species and rely on a completely different mindset, as well as have an inordinately huge impact on the confidence of the team in front of them.

Goalkeepers need to know that every little decision they make in every single situation won’t be dissected like fetal pig. They have to be supremely confident and make snap decisions in telling others what to do because there is no one on the field to bail them out. Field players talk all the time and make calls for each other, so no problem if Burch reads a situation wrong, Namoff or Jakovic or Simms can make the same call. Not the keeper, he has to make the right choice every time, as well as stop shots and gauge the angle and speed of every ball anywhere near the box on every different surface in the league, never making a mistake because there is no one behind him to make up for it if he triangulates wrong.

In my opinion, Soehn has never really been sold on Crayton, but the fact remains when the goalkeeping poo hit the fan last year, Crayton was brought in and settled things down. Not the perfect solution, but he got the job done and deserved to stay the starter for as long as he could keep the job. Which means when Kocic or Wicks clearly beat him out, he steps aside, and I bet he would do so with no complaints. But, that is not how this has played out.

Merely looking at their records bears that out. Wicks is currently winless and undefeated at 0-0-3, Crayton has the lone loss, but also two of the three wins as he is 2-1-3, while Kocic is 1-0-1. All of them have given up bad goals, and all of them have pulled out good results. There really is no clear pattern to any of them yet.

Unfortunately, Soehn seized his chance to put the job up for grabs early in the year by claiming Crayton’s pre-season injuries and his mother’s funeral in Africa meant he was not ready to start the season, even though Crayton himself said he could play. Then when Wicks went down injured, he grudgingly went back to Crayton only until Kocic was deemed ready and then the draft pick got his shot, and seemingly crapped out too. Now that Wicks has gotten another chance, Crayton has clearly been shoved aside as you never see a healthy starter in street clothes in the stands of a home game unless something has gone drastically wrong.

Now, that said, I’d still be fine with the benching Crayton if Soehn was handling the situation differently and actually gave the starting job to someone else for a decent stretch of games to whoever had earned it. But, consider the way Soehn has chosen to pick a starter. Wicks got two games under the auspices of Crayton not being ready yet, then Crayton getting the reins back for four games, then Kocic for the Dallas game (as well as the Open Cup tie with them), then Crayton a game, Kocic another game, Crayton again, now Wicks again for the last two in a row including the NY Open Cup match.

Now I ask you, is that any way to give them an honest shot at taking over the job, not to mention build up their confidence? Especially when you’re saying publicly that all of them have weaknesses and you’re waiting for one of them to seize the job (which implies you expect them to continue to make mistakes and will be pleasantly surprised when they stop). You think it is going to help them knowing they can be yanked at any time for any mistakes? Soehn has said Wicks finally took a big step forward with that RSL tie, but what do you think happens if Warf gives up a bad goal in NE? Think Temperamental Tommy sticks with him? Me neither.

All of which hurts your entire organization given United’s current situation. The communication on the field is constantly being switched up to adjust to different goalkeepers who play differently, which has impacted directly on wins and losses for certain. It also can’t help in the locker-room if players are constantly being second guessed and pointing fingers due to simple communication breakdowns that should have long been sorted out.

But, there are now jobs on the line too as Crayton’s contract ends in about two months, and something must most likely be done about replacing him. He surely is gone at the transfer window, for I can’t imagine he’s going to sign for less money with a team that is openly disrespecting him. He can’t love America that much. So, Soehn has in effect said Kocic or Wicks better be ready to play the rest of the season or DC has to find someone else better.

However, someone better costs a lot of money and/or a trade which would put Kaspar in a difficult situation. Crayton only frees up about 90K (half his season pay starting the last half of last year), so maybe you find someone for that, but most likely not. So, who gets traded or waived in order to have the money to bring in a solid goalkeeper? You think that situation won’t cause some friction and/or upset the chemistry of a team in late summer who is hopefully gearing up for the playoffs?

Not only that, but good goalkeepers are hard to find as we found out last season with Wells and Carvallo, both of whom had impressive resumes, but less than stellar results. The Wells fiasco cost the team Boswell, who will be sacrificed for the next goalkeeper hopeful?

Bottom line as this is getting a bit wordy, in my opinion Soehn has botched this particular coaching task. Crayton is as good as gone and Wicks and Kocic still have question marks. This may still play out well, though if Soehn really does stick to one keeper for a good chunk of games and gives them an honest run. If he remains quick on the trigger to yank keepers, then I can’t imagine this ending well and DC United isn’t good enough to win trophies in this league without some solid goalkeeping.

-As for some MLS housekeeping, it was a much better week for prognostication. Of course Guevara and TFC made a fool of me in soundly beating NE, DC really chunked their game with RSL who they really should have been able to beat, and Dallas let me down with my wild card pick. BUT, Houston thumped SJ as expected and I called the Chivas-KC tie and the Seattle-Colorado tie, as well as the Fire beating NY. All in all, 4-3 on the week and creeping back to respectability at 36-40.

Anyway, a couple games before my preview Friday, so here’s a few more blind guesses.

The Crew will squeak by SJ at home more due to the Quakes ineptness than the Crew’s brilliance as I think Yallop will build a moat around Cannon and the Crew never really play light’s out at home anyway. 1-0 to the defending champs tonite.
The Fire at Chivas is really a firecracker. The top two in each conference with only one loss between them. Chivas almost perfect at home but showing cracks lately, the Fire a better away record than at home (3 wins away as opposed to 1 at home), and seemingly able to tie anyone anywhere. No Kljestan for Chivas, but that probably helps them as badly as he was playing, the Fire get Segares back. Fire – great offense, medium defense against Chivas medium offense, great defense and at home. Going to be a mistake that decides this one and I’m betting the Fire make it. Chivas 2-1.

Late goal hands United 2-1 loss at Real Salt Lake

It doesn’t matter if the match was played on the parking lot formerly known as Rice-Eccles Stadium or the beautifully manicured pitch at Rio Tinto Stadium, the result was the same.  A loss for D.C. United. While United didn’t have the comical implosion of the 4-0 loss last season or the two penalty kicks in stoppage time fiasco of three seasons ago, they still couldn’t get the job done tonight in Sandy, Utah.

Javier Morales’ 82nd minute goal was the game-winner tonight as United gave up the lead for the third time in four matches this season. Luciano Emilio scored for the third consecutive game to give United the lead in the 38th minute off of more good work from rookie Chris Pontius. Fred, making his first start of the season, made an overlapping run and pulled a ball back into the box for Pontius. While the rookie had every right to launch a first time shot on goal, Pontius chipped a beautiful ball onto the head of Emilio who easily beat both the defender and Nick Rimando for the 1-0 lead. The lead didn’t last long however as another defensive blunder gave Real Salt Lake the equalizer just minutes before halftime.

Fred was slow in closing down winger Will Johnson and he was allowed to whip in a cross into the middle of the penalty area that RSL defender Jamison Olave beat the United defense to. The ball ricocheted towards goalkeeper Louis Crayton who seemed suprised and reacted badly to the header and it slipped through his hands and off his upper body and into the net sending the teams to the locker tied at 1-1.

The second half started better for the visiting Black and Red with nice moments of possession that did little however to create any credible scoring chances. In fact, United only registered two shots on goal for the entire match, the second of which was a harmless shot that substitute Santino Quaranta  got off in the 85th minute. While the possession game for United was working, that final pass in the last third of the field was missing most of the night.  Meanwhile at the other end of the field RSL were fortunate not to take the lead earlier when Crofton native and famous United killer Kyle Beckerman rocked a shot off the crossbar that left Crayton with no chance only to see United rookie Rodney Wallace sweep the ball out of trouble.

However the game changed late on when RSL put together a beautiful sequence of passes to result in the game winning goal from Javier Morales. Will Johnson again was the chief architect and worked his way off the left flank into the middle of the park and sent a through ball to Robbie Findley who’s one-time backheel hit Morales perfectly in stride. The Argentine took one touch and slipped a ball to the right of Crayton just inside the goal to send Rio Tinto into a frenzy.

United didn’t mount much of an attack after that energy draining goal and their game long tactic of playing for the draw fizzled out and resulted in United’s fourth loss in a row in the state of Utah (three of which ended in 2-1 losses).

United Notes

– Ben Olsen didn’t make the trip to Sandy. He stayed in Washingto to rest up for their next match against the New England Revolution. Jaime Moreno was already suspended with his red card from last weekends match against Houston. Greg Janicki didn’t make the game squad due to complications from his clash of heads with Devon McTavish in their opening match at the Galaxy. McTavish made his first appearance tonight since that incident.

– United will play the Revolution on a rare Friday night clash this week at RFK Stadium at 7pm. The match will be televised nationally on ESPN2

United holds off desperate Houston challenge

Luciano Emilio’s second goal in consecutive games was enough for D.C. United as they defeated the visiting Houston Dyanmo 1-0. The victory for United propelled them temporarily into second place in the Eastern Conference. United, which has started slowly in each of the past two seasons, has gone three matches without losing to start the season.

United head coach Tom Soehn made two notable changes to the starting lineup for the Black and Red. Back in goal for the first time this season was first choice keeper Louis Crayton and the debut of French striker Ange N’ Silu. While the Frenchman had a slow start to the game, his size and pace created a few dangerous chances for United. Twice N’ Silu snuck behind the Dynamo defense and centered balls through the penalty area that failed to have any United player connect with. Ben Olsen made the wrong run on the 45th minute attempt from N’Silu and a dangerous scooted across the goal line begging for a United player to tap home. As it was both teams went to the locker room tied a 0-0, a rather deserving scoreline for the lack of flair in the first 45 minutes

It only took about 90 seconds for the game to finally get into higher gear as United took the lead in the 47th minute. United defender Bryan Namoff sent a curling ball over the top of the Dynamo defense from just about the midfield stripe. Former United defender Bobby Boswell badly mis-timed his leaping clearance of the ball by jumping too early and the United’s Designated Player sprang into action. Emilio ghosted in behind the clumsy Boswell and beat the onrushing Pat Onstad to the ball and toe-poked a lob over the goalkeeper and watched as Boswell and Richard Mulrooney desperately tried to prevent the ball from going over the goal line. The ball bounced straight up off the goal line and hit the underside of the crossbar before settling into the net to send the 12,594 fans into delirium at RFK.  The goal for United energized both teams and they traded dangerous scoring chances just a few minutes later. Houston nearly equalized in the 52nd minute when Ricardo Clark got hold of a ball ping-ponging in the area and sent a shot goal bound only to see Namoff’s lunging effort spear the ball out of the goal. Just two minutes later United’s pair of impressive rookies combined for United’s second best effort of the night. Rodney Wallace, who admittedly struggled in the first half against the well organized Dynamo defense, pulled off the individual move of the night when he skinned two Dynamo players along the left sideline and whipped in a cross to fellow rookie Chris Pontius who’s rocket header just flew over the bar. Pontius had another header well saved just four minutes later when Onstad fell to his left to smother the chance. That would be the end of United’s offensive efforts for the evening as the game completely changed in the 71st minute.

Jaime Moreno, on the field for all of six minutes, was shown a straight red from referee Baldomero Toledo on his sliding tackle on a Houston midfielder. Moreno’s poor start to the season continued as it seemed on replay that the straight red seemed to be a bit harsh. None the less United sat back and defended for the remainder of the match and got some very good play from a defense that has been less than stellar over the first part of this season and most of last season. Defenisve blunders had followed this team around but none were to be found tonight as Louis Crayton played his usual aggressive style in the goal challenging for all balls in the box and was rewaded with United’s first shutout of the season. While Crayton was busing keeping the clean sheet, only one shot really troubled the Liberian all night when Brad Davis’ 81st minute rocket from 25 yards was palmed off the crossbar and the ensuing foul called on Brian Ching helped relieve United’s pressure and the Black and Red held on as a barrage of crosses in the next tem minutes  amounted to nothing and United get their first win of the season.

United Notes

Jaime Moreno will miss next weeks match in Salt Lake City due to his red card. United has had a less than impressive history against Real Salt Lake in Utah. United won their initial match at RSL in 2005 by a 5-1 score. Since then United has posted three straight losses being outscored 8-2 in those matches.

– Talked with Santino Quaranta just as the game was ending outside the pressbox and was impressed in seeing him doing stretches while fully clothed in jeans and a pullover top. He said he is eager to get back on the field and should be ready for next weeks match in Utah. (foot note: Martin also talked to him before the match and tino said he was “itching” to get back in – he should be ready next week).

– Devon McTavish was held off the 18 man roster in favor of Greg Janicki who made a late appearance for United tonight to help solidify their first shutout.

Match Gallery – Photos by Chris Bannon

[sspdc album=50 style=matrix]