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United roster overhaul continues in Florida

Missing out on the playoffs on the last day of the season in consecutive years has brought about a host of changes that has more than a few fans and pundits uneasy about the teams prospects heading into the 2010 MLS campaign. Gone from United’s roster is 3/4 of their foreign attacking contingent in Luciano Emilio, Fred and Christian Gomez. Between the three of them they accounted for 18 goals and 10 assists. That breaks down to roughly 42% of the goal scoring and 28% of the assists. While those numbers don’t exactly jump off the page at you, it is a significant amount of their offense nonetheless and it will be missed at times during the upcoming season.

The question now is “Did United do enough to make up for those losses?” It’s obviously too early to say because the players they brought into the team whom they can count on scoring goals doesn’t exactly look like a murderers row of goal scoring. Australian striker Danny Allsop comes to United to add some size and scoring punch as does Salvadoran winger Christian Castillo who scored two fantastic goals against the United States in World Cup qualifying last fall. Again, is that enough? If you held a gun to my head I would say that no, it’s not enough at the moment. To be fair to the front office, it’s still only the middle of February and the transfer window for MLS doesn’t close until the end of March. United has also brought in 18-year old Honduran striker Arnolyn Guity. Your guess is as good as mine as to who this kid is and what kind of a player he is. If he has any kind of speed at all, it will be a welcomed sight for the Black and Red because their current crop of forwards (Allsop, Jaime Moreno, Chris Pontius and newly acquired Adam Cristman) don’t exactly come across as players that can get behind defenses. Not that pure speed is the magical elixir that will vault United to the MLS Cup anytime soon, but wouldn’t it be a refreshing change of pace (pun intended) to see a United player actually run past the last line of defense and bear down on goal?

Enough of that pipe dream. Arguably the most affected area of the team is in midfield where United has lost four players who contributed major minutes to the club last season and beyond. The aforementioned Fred (traded) and Gomez (not offered a contract) are gone as well as Andrew Jacobsen (selected by Philadelphia Union in the Expansion Draft) and the heart and soul of United, Ben Olsen. Olsen does remain with the team as an assistant coach, but his leadership skills on the field will be sorely missed. United brought in the electric Castillo on loan and also picked up Congolese midfielder Flo N’Galula to help make up the numbers. N’Galula was a former Manchester United youth player and actually sat the bench with the first team on the rare occasion though never actually played. Also back for United is  midfield Brandon Barklage who played very well during the U.S. Open Cup (scoring in back-to-back matches) but was lost for the season shortly thereafter with a knee injury. Danny Szetela is back and is hopeful of bigger role than his spot duty after being obtained late last season. Unfortunately for Szetela, he is currently sidelined after tearing the meniscus in his knee. He should be back right as the season starts, but with missing most or all of preseason, his impact will be minimal until mid-season at least. Stalwarts Clyde Simms, Santino Quaranta and second-year man Rodney Wallace will be back, though with the addition of Castillo on the left it just might put Wallace into the left-back position ahead of incumbent Marc Burch. Quaranta is also coming off of injury but is very close to resuming full training in the next few weeks.

Defense is a position that seems the most thin part of the roster at the moment. Dejan Jacovic, Julius James and Marc Burch are all returning as well as Lawson Vaughn. However the big story of the off-season is the rather dire situation with Bryan Namoff and concussion issues. At the moment there is no realistic time table of his return and that will hurt this team at the beginning of the season. If they can hold on initially, they just might be able to stomach the loss of arguably their best defender. United has brought in Jamaican defender Jermaine Taylor and Honduran defender Quiarol Arzu for tryouts this week in Bradenton, Florida. If these two players manage to make the squad that could improve United’s admittedly weak depth in the back.  Taylor is a central defender who just this past week put in a decent effort against Argentina in a 2-1 friendly loss. Arzu can play centrally and on the right side of defense. He seems to be cover for Namoff at the moment. Utility man Devon McTavish and rookie fourth-round selection Jordan Graye round out the defense.

The biggest move of the off-season undoubtedly was United’s acquisition of Troy Perkins. United certainly gave up quite a bit (Fred, allocation money and the #7 overall pick in the 2010 MLS Superdraft) to get him from the Philadelphia Union but in the end I think it will be worth it as Perkins is about as solid an MLS keeper as any team could ask for. Who backs up Perkins is the million dollar question at the moment. Will it be Josh Wicks (coming off injury and not available until after the season starts) or Milos Kocic? How about 19-year old manchild Bill Hamid? It’s perhaps a bit much to ask to have a 19-year old as a backup, but with roster spots limited and United only playing a bare bones schedule this season (just 30 league matches and however many Open Cup matches they play in), it would probably make sense to only keep two goalies on the roster. The big stumbling block in all of this is whether or not Perkins will be the #3 goalkeeper for the US this summer during the World Cup. At this point, Perkins has about a 50-50 chance to be that 3rd keeper.

Overall I am beginning to like the changes that new coach Curt Onalfo has brought about with United. With only two players over the age of 30 (Moreno and Allsop) who will play every game from the outset, it’s a bit of a departure from years past in the way that United is shaping their team. United has always prided itself on their flowing football and attacking style of play. To me their predictable play has gone a little stale over the past few years and I think the changes made during the off-season reflect that. Younger players and better ball movement might be the key to this team turning around their fortunes and finally getting into the playoffs after a two-year haitus. Who knows, they might even eschew their normal method of walking the ball into the goal in favor of actually using the width of the field and letting talented playmakers like Castillo and Quaranta get down the wing and hit some crosses into a team that now boast three strikers over 6 feet tall in Allsop, Pontius and Cristman.

It’s going to be an interesting preseason and even more intriguing regular season. I can’t wait for it to get started. In the meantime, can anyone volunteer to come over and help shovel my car out?

United rolls past San Juan Jabloteh 5-1

Christian Gomez and Boyzzz Khumalo both scored twice to lead D.C. United to an emphatic 5-1 win over San Juan Jabloteh FC last night at RFK Stadium. The win for United is their third consecutive in the competition and puts the Black and Red at the cusp of qualifying to the knockout stages next winter. A Toluca win tonight over Marathon in Honduras would assure the feat for United. If Marathon manages a tie or a win, United would have to either get an unlikely result in Toluca or hope that winless Jabloteh can somehow manage to upset Marathon in Trinidad. United holds the all-important tie-breaker over Marathon should the teams remain tied after the sixth and final group match.

Christian Gomez scored in the 13th and 68th minutes to get United rolling. Khumalo added his first goal in the 41st minute and his second in stoppage time at the end of the match. Fred also scored for United in the 30th minute in United’s comfortable win. Head coach Tom Soehn once again used a mostly reserve squad last night as United had three players suspended for cards and a number of veterans on the bench. United didn’t need any of them as the youthful legs won the day out. Rodney Wallace and David Habarugira paced up and down the flanks all night long giving Jabloteh all kinds of problems that never got solved. And when that was not enough, substitutes Ty Shipalane and Danny Szetela continued to create havoc all over the field.

United now faces their toughest match of the season when they face Chivas USA at RFK Stadium on Saturday evening. A win by United gets them right back into the thick of the playoff chase and could go a long way towards securing a playoff position. Fellow playoff hopefuls New England Revolution did United a big favor by dropping their league match in Dallas last night 1-0 behind red-hot Jeff Cunningham’s league leading 16th goal of the season. United remains one point behind the Revolution who travel to Colorado to play the Rapids at altitude.

United Notes

  • Jaime Moreno (red), Dejan Jakovic and Avery John (both yellows) were all suspended last night.
  • Bryan Namoff is still out with concussion symptoms. His return is still unknown
  • Josh Wicks looked like a car wreck survivor last night with knee and shoulder braces and crutches

Gomez penalty conversion enough as United gains first ever Champions League win 1-0 in Trinidad

It only took nine CONCACAF Champions League group stage and two preliminary qualifying matches for D.C. United to notch their very first win in the international competition. Christian Gomez’ 14th minute penalty was all the Black and Red needed to get a bit more confidence going ahead of their next group match a week from Thursday at RFK Stadium against Marathon of Honduras.
After three matches played, United is firmly in third place with 3 points. A win over Marathon will make the remaining two group matches very interesting. United left about a half dozen starters back in Washington D.C., a combination of badly needed rest, injuries and suspensions. With that United only took 16 players down to Port of Spain and fielded yet another makeshift lineup that saw Clyde Simms in the back line of United’s 4-5-1 formation. Luciano Emilio was the target player with Gomez roaming freely all night just behind him.

Danny Szetela, Andrew Jacobson and Devon MacTavish all drew rare starts and their fresh legs were a big part of the improved performance from past weeks from the Black and Red. Aside from a ten minute spot of play from the home side late in the first half, United were in complete control of the match as Jebloteh were reduced to taking chances from the inordinate amount of free kicks given by the sketchy at best refereeing crew. A number of bizarre calls seemed to go against United all night long including the yet unseen this calender year call of six seconds of possession against United’s goalkeeper Milos Kocic. The resulting free kick was the worst of a terrible litter of poor free kicks from Jebloteh.

United got the games lone goal in the 14th minute when a Jebloteh defender clearly blocked a cross coming from Szetela through the penalty area. Gomez stepped up and easily beat the Trinidadian goalkeeper. While United didn’t create all that many chances outside of a few late ones as Jebloteh was pushing upfield looking for the equalizer, they did a more than credible job of keeping possession and forcing the home side to attempt to apply pressure to get the ball away from United. United obliged on a few occasions with their own bizarre turnovers but for the most part the midfield triangle of Rodney Wallace, Jacobsen and Gomez kept United in control from start to finish.

United has now ended their worst stretch of matches for the season after playing 10 games in 31 days and 4 different countries. Now they can get back to DC and get some proper training in (which they couldn’t do when they were playing every 3 days) and prepare for the stretch run of this competition as well as the highly important MLS playoff chase. United will face Marathon of Honduras on Thursday, Sept 24th at RFK. Three days later they get back into MLS play against the San Jose Earthquakes at RFK and then face Jebloteh again on Wednesday, September 30th.

United Notes

– Bryan Namoff, Jaime Moreno, Josh Wicks, Ben Olsen, Santino Quaranta, Marc Burch, Dejan Jakovic and Fred were all left back in Washington.

– Ty Shipalane made his United debut subbing in for Emilio in the 78th minute and should have scored in the 90th when he was all alone in front of net, courtesy of a fine individual move from Gomez

– Milos Kocic got a rare start and has yet to taste defeat this season wearing the Black and Red goalkeeper jersey. Interesting…………

United ends long road drought with massive effort in 1-0 win in Chicago

D.C. United got a much needed road win and snapped the team right back into a playoff position with a tough fought 1-0 win in the Windy City over the Chicago Fire. Bryan Namoff’s second headed goal of the season was all the Black and Red needed on a night that saw United pull off their second consecutive league shutout. United has been MLS’ worst defensive road team this season and perhaps their visit to Chicago was exactly what they needed to snap themselves out of a bad patch of form. United has now won three consecutive matches at Toyota Park and they have jumped back over Toronto FC help their playoff positioning. United only has two road matches remaining this season with five home matches sandwiched in between them.

United got the scoring started in the 11th minute with a rare headed free kick goal. Christian Gomez lined up a free kick from about 40 yards out on the right side of the field and the ball whipped into the box and met the head of Bryan Namoff who skimmed it easily to the far post and a 1-0 lead for United.

Chicago continued to pour forward throughout the remainder of the first half but while they presented some dangerous and nervy moments for United in their barely used 4-4-2 formation, they rarely challenged United netminder Josh Wicks. A header from CJ Brown and a wayward Cuauhtemoc Blanco free kick from 19 yards were the only serious challengers for United. United managed to hold on and get to the locker room with the 1-0 lead.

With United’s penchant to give up leads and goals throughout the MLS season, United went from their familiar 3-5-2 to a more defensive 4-4-2 to start the match. After the goal in the first half, that actually morphed into a 4-5-1 when it was clear that Ben Olsen couldn’t hack playing on the right side of midfield . As the second half progressed, it seemed United was more interested in bunkering down than settling the ball and counter attacking. It seemed obvious the goal was to frustrate the Fire and try to hold on to the lead for as long as possible. But somewhere along the way United figured their best defense could be their best offense.

United almost doubled their lead in the 63rd minute when a sustained period of possession resulted in a near goal from Ben Olsen. March Burch sent a driving ball to the far side of the penatly area where Santino Quaranta one-timed his volley to Olsen who’s toe-poke just narrowly went wide of the far post. Chicago nearly equalized a minute later but Wicks dove to his right to smother a Marco Pappa drive. Amazingly, the Black and Red came right back down to the other end of the field and Luciano Emilo forced Jon Busch off his line and he made a jumping reaction save to Emilio’s attempted chip over the diminutive goalkeeper to keep the scoreline at 1-0 for United.

United continued to gain more traction in the match and actually carved out a number of decent chances but couldn’t put anything behind Jon Busch. Marc Burch might have had the best opportunity on a rare counter attack in the 75th minute when substitute Jaime Moreno fed him down the left flank and the left-footer with a hammer for a peg hesitated when an open look on his preferred left foot was available. He instead chose to fake his oncoming defender and eventually sent in a cross that caused a few defensive problems for the Fire but was eventually cleared out of danger.

Chicago nearly got the game-tying goal in the 85th minute when a Blanco cross was met by Mike Banner who headed  it into the middle of the United goal area. Julius James and Josh Wicks nearly collided but the Jamaican defender managed to get the ball over the bar to keep the shutout intact.  Chicago nearly had another chance to tie in the 90th minute when James fouled a Chicago attacker right at the top of the box, but Blanco misfired for the third time in the match and United knew at that point that the win was in the cards. The match had a very unusual conclusion which saw Josh Wicks nearly come to blows with his own teamate Marc Burch. Wicks was complaining about the fact that Burch seemingly was lax in his defending a Chicago onslaught. Cooler heads prevailed however and United got back to finishing off the match.

 

 United now will face the Seattle Sounders FC in the U.S. Open Cup final on Wednesday night at RFK Stadium. United will have the opportunity to win their 13th major trophy in their existence. For anyone keeping score, that’s 13 more than Metrostars/Red Bull have ever gotten, should United win the match.

 

United Notes

– Danny Szetela and new signing Ty Shipalane were left back in DC. Andrew Jacobson (ankle) was out injured and also left back in Washington.

– Big thumbs down for Fox Soccer Channel when at halftime, their 6 in 60 segment (a series of questions in one minute) included a question for Santino Quaranta about “your preferred choice of adult beverage”. Apparantly no one at FSC bothered to realize that the youngster is in the throws of substance abuse recovery. Nice job.

– Thanks to results across the league, United is still out of a playoff position in 9th place. They could drop even further if the Colorado Rapids win on Sunday afternoon.

– Dejan Jackovic is now suspended for United’s next match at Dallas next Saturday when he got a late yellow card during the Wicks/Burch bust up.

United takes on Galaxy in hopes of changing recent fortunes

D.C. United will take on David Beckham, Landon Donovan and the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday night at RFK Stadium. It will be only the second league home match in over two months for the Black and Red and they absolutely need to capitalize on their good fortune at RFK. United is unbeaten in 9 home matches with 5 wins and 4 draws. However, their recent slide down the Eastern Conference table can be laid directly at the feet of their admittedly poor road success this season. United has only one win in 12 road matches (along with 5 losses and 6 draws) this season and only three road wins over their last 24 MLS road matches, easily the worst streak in all of MLS.

The comfy confines of RFK can hopefully jump start a team that is slowly falling apart due to lack of confidence, poor play and of course a schedule that is simply adding more pressure on the team. The Galaxy come into the match on the heels of their 2-0 win in Chicago on Wednesday evening, without the services of the suspended Beckham and fellow midfielder Eddie Lewis. Both players are expected to start for the Galaxy who will also be seeing a homecoming of sorts with ex-Maryland defenders AJ Delagarza and Omar Gonzalez returning to the DC area for the first time as professional players.

United will have to figure out how to stop the Galaxy’s potent offense driven by Beckham and Donovan. Donovan is coming off swine flu symptoms and seemed none the worse as he flew past three Chicago Fire players to tally the second goal on Wednesday. A confident and fit Donovan is a worst-case scenario for United in that he has been a personal killer against the Black and Red throughout his career. Donovan scored both goals in the Galaxy’s comeback 2-2 draw in the season opener at the Home Depot Center in which United gave up a two-goal lead (sound familiar?) with 13 minutes to play. Donovan also notched a hat trick last season in Los Angeles’ 5-2 drubbing of United eleven months ago.  In order for United to keep the Galaxy at bay, they have to sort out their defense which has gone all pear shaped the past two months. United gave up 15 goals on their recent six-game road jaunt and on Tuesday evening it all came to a head when reserve defender Greg Janicki had a hand in all three goals given up in their undeserved 3-1 loss to Marathon in the opening match of group play in the CONCACAF Champions League. Head coach Tom Soehn didn’t mince words during training yesterday when talking about the clearly underperforming Janicki, “I actually thought the team did a pretty good job. We just had an individual who didn’t play well and it really hurt us.  Some of the mistakes he is making are mistakes you shouldn’t see at the professional level. He has had a rough stretch, that’s all I can say.”

With that being said, it’s obvious that it would take an act of Congress to get Janicki to play again this season for United, especially with the recent acquisitions of David Habarugira and Julius James in defense. I’m willing to say that Soehn will go against type and actually go with a 4-4-2 against the Galaxy tomorrow evening. I think both Habarugira and James will start (James in central defense) and Marc Burch will see some pine time. In the midfield I see Clyde Simms and Christian Gomez in the middle with Santino Quaranta and Fred out wide, though I would prefer to see Rodney Wallace start ahead of the inconsitent at best Fred. Up front it will be Luciano Emilio and Jaime Moreno.

While it’s easy to say that the season hangs in the balance with this match should United not get the  vital three points, it really isn’t over just yet. After their match against the Galaxy, United will play Toluca of Mexico on Wednesday night at RFK before heading off to play the Fire in Chicago on Saturday night. At that point, United will only have two road matches left to play in league play with 5 consecutive home matches sandwiched in between. Right there is where your season lies.

As for the Galaxy match, I expect United to come flying out of the gate. Their recent performances have been pedestrian at best and I think the relative comfort of RFK will serve them well. United has won two straight matches against the Galaxy at RFK, a 4-1 pasting last season and a 1-0 win in Beckham’s MLS debut in 2007. I say recent history is on United’s side and they will scratch and claw for the three points. However, they simply have to contain both Beckham and Donovan. If other Galaxy players beat them, so be it, they just can’t let the big guns go blasting away. Also, the defense simply has to find a way to keep goals out of the net. I know the offense was a complete no-show north of the border in Toronto last week, but it’s been individual breakdowns that have haunted this team for the better part of two seasons. Last season even United fans could make fun of the Galaxy’s defense as it was one of the worst in league history. However Bruce Arena has gotten them to buy into a total team concept and the three ring Circus hasn’t really taken off this season. In fact the Galaxy have given up twenty fewer goals than at the same point last season. Over that period of time only one team in MLS has given up more goals. I’ll give you three guesses who that team is.

United loses lead again, but holds on for 2-2 draw in San Jose

There used to be a time when D.C. United got on top of their opponents and the game was essentially over. It seems, at least in 2009, those days are long gone. United got out to a 2-0 lead last night in their match at San Jose but couldn’t hold the lead and in many respects were quite fortunate not to lose the match. United held on for the 2-2 draw which now sees them all alone in 3rd place in the very crowded Eastern Conference standings. A win would have vaulted United into a first place tie with Columbus, 3-2 comeback winners over Toronto FC last night.

San Jose, buried deep in last place in the Western Conference, was a team ripe for the picking in that they have been playing very poorly for nearly two months. However, United let them up off the mat and walked out of Buck Shaw stadium with only a point and more frustration for their season-long failures on the road. Things did look promising from the start however when United was awarded a penalty in the 2nd minuted when former United defender Mike Zaher bundled into Luciano Emilio. After a brief argument between Emilio and Gomez about whom should take the spot kick, the Argentine won out and calmly beat Joe Cannon for the quick 1-0 lead.

United continued to threaten and in the 21st minute got themselves a rare two-goal lead. Andrew Jacobsen’s 30 yard blast was deflected by Zaher right into the path of Gomez, who appeared to be a few yards offside. Gomez easily beat Cannon and it was 2-0 for United. Replays showed Gomez was fractionally onside when the shot was taken. At this point the match began to tilt in San Jose’s favor. United lost control of it’s midfield and gave up the first goal when they failed to clear the ball on numerous occasions in the 36th minute. A cross from the left flank was deflected by United but still Cornell Glen outmuscled Dejan Jakovic to flick the ball to the back post where Ryan Johnson’s one-timer shot easily past Josh Wicks to halve the defecit to 2-1.

After the break it was more of the same for the home side as wave after wave of attack seemed to unerve United. The overall speed of San Jose was causing major holes in United’s 3-5-2 formation and United’s lack of composure on the ball ended up ceding the game-tying goal in the 62nd minute. Darren Huckerby sent a free kick from the left flank into the box only to see Wicks whiff and miss at the ball but it clearly slapped off the hand of Rodney Wallace, giving referee Kevin Stott no choice but to point to the spot and Glen stepped up and easily beat Wicks to his right to tie the match at 2-2. On watching replays of the hand ball, it was clearly evident that the ball would have gone straight out of bounds for a throw-in had it not been for Wallace’ inexplicable hand being above his head. Another in a long line of mental errors from the rookie that have ultimately cost United points this season. Wallace received a yellow card on the play and now is suspended for their next league match at Houston next Saturday evening.

From this point, United could only offer a weak shot over the goal by Emilio minutes after the game-tying penalty kick and a 90th minute shot from Fred directly at Joe Cannon. It was easily one of the worst halves of soccer played by United all season long and it couldn’t have come against a worst opponent or the worst time considering the crush of matches that faces United over the next two and a half months.

 

United Notes

– United faces L.A. Firpo of El Salvador on Tuesday night at 8pm at RFK Stadium in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions Cup qualifier

– United’s next league match is away to Houston next weekend at 8:30pm. United has never scored in three matches at Houston. Houston is coming off a poor 1-0 home loss to New England and will be welcoming back Stuart Holden and Brian Ching from the Gold Cup. Translation – not much hope for United

– Clyde Simms had successful hernia surgery this week in Germany and will be out at least three weeks according to club officials. Boyzzz Khumalo will be out at least six weeks after his wrist surgery this week

– The match tonight begins a ridiculous stretch of matches for United. Including last night’s match in San Jose, that will be 5 matches in 15 days

      – 7/28 vs Firpo

      – 8/1 @ Houston

      – 8/5 @ Firpo

      – 8/9 vs Real Madrid

Moreno, Gomez ignite second half rally in United’s 3-1 win over Colorado

There will be a day in the very near future when D.C. United will have to survive without Jaime Moreno. Until that day comes, United can always rely on their wily veteran striker to give the team a boost when they need it most. Last night at RFK, United was indeed in need of that boost as a lackluster first half gave way to some old United magic as MLS’ all-time leading goal scorer scored a penalty just two minutes after coming on and United was on their way to an easy 3-1 victory over the visiting Colorado Rapids before 18,248 at RFK Stadium.

United, coming off of a 35 day break between league home matches, came out strong and should have been up early when Boyzzz Khumalo missed a breakaway in the 6th minute. Just eight minutes later the visitors had a shock lead when Bryan Namoff misplayed a long goal kick and inexplicably sent the ball over Josh Wicks and into the net for an own-goal and 1-0 lead for Colorado. The rest of the half saw United growing increasingly frustrated at their poor play and went into the locker room down by a goal.

That lasted all of about two minutes. Jaime Moreno subbed in for Khumalo at the break and made an immediate impact when his through-ball to Christian Gomez resulted in a clumsy Pablo Mastroeni tackle in the penalty area and a resulting PK. Moreno thundered his shot just under the crossbar to tie the match at 1-1. A bit of luck came United’s way in the 51st minute when United midfielder Fred was fortunate not to be sent off for a tackle that ended the evening for Colorado defender Cory Gibbs. The Brazilians late tackle saw the bottom of his cleat make contact just below the kneecap of Gibbs. Neither referee Ricardo Salazar or any of his assistants saw the rash challenge as it was after Gibbs had cleared the ball away.

United’s luck continued in the 56th minute when they scored a rare goal off of a corner kick. Christian Gomez whipped in a low line-drive that was met at the near post by a parallel to the ground Bryan Namoff who’s rocket header gave Mastroeni no chance on the post. The game-winner was sweet justice for Namoff as his own-goal had soured his first half performance. United was not done there and pure hustle and skill supplied the third and final goal of the evening for the Black and Red. In the 61st minute, Christian Gomez battled Rapids defender Scott Palguta to the end line and somehow managed to poke the ball towards the penalty spot just before the ball went out of bounds. Fred pounced on the loose ball and with his back to the goal, held onto the ball  long enough for Luciano Emilio to run into the box and easily slot the ball into the empty net for one of the prettiest and skillful sequences of the season for United.

United, now with a rare two-goal lead this season, played out the remaining thirty minutes without conceding any real threatening chances save for an 87th minute shot that deflected off Marc Burch and off of the crossbar and over the goal.

 

D.C. United’s next league match is the start of another three game road trip beginning with a match in San Jose next weekend. Before that however, United will play their U.S. Open Cup semi-final match against the Rochester Raging Rhinos (USL-1) at the Maryland SoccerPlex this Tuesday evening at 7:30 pm. If United advances against the Rhinos, they will host the final at RFK Stadium on September 2nd against either the Houston Dynamo or Seattle Sounders FC

United lets another one get away; draw 1-1 at Columbus

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

 

United takes the deserved lead through a 33rd minute goal from Christian Gomez and rolls into halftime with a comfortable 1-0 lead.  United comes out of the locker room on fire and is hammering down on the Columbus goal only to see Crew goalkeeper Will Hesmer keep the Black and Red at bay. Then, somehow, you just knew it was going to happen. A defensive lapse by rookie midfielder Rodney Wallace allowed United killer Alejandro Moreno to pounce on a flicked on ball from Steven Lenhardt and calmly slot past a charging Josh Wicks to tie the match at 1-1.

It was Columbus’ only shot on goal the entire second half.

In a season that has seen it’s share of miracle comebacks, perhaps it’s just Murphy”s Law that is imposing itself on United in allowing yet another opponent to stay close and eventually catch United. This game wasn’t even close with United outshooting the home side by a 22 to 9 margin with 11 of United’s shots on target opposed to only 3 on frame for the Champions of MLS.

United’s goal came about from a determined attack that saw no less than 7 United players involved before Gomez slotted past Hesmer in the 33rd minute. The play started in midfield when Gomez’s pass was inadvertantly deflected by teamate Chris Pontius towards the Crew goal. Ange N’Silu pressured defender Andy Iro and forced him into Will Hesmer who’s hurried clearance fell to Clyde Simms. Simms’ shot was well saved by Hesmer and the rebound found it’s way to the right wing. N’Silu crossed immediately to the back post where Pontius cleverly headed back towards the penalty spot. The ball deflected off Crew defender Danny O’Rourke and right into the path of Gomez who easily beat Hesmer to give United the 1-0 lead.

After the break United poured on the pressure and somehow managed to not take the lead. But in true United fashion this season, their inattentiveness cost them three points in the 59th minute. Substitute midfielder Fred was slow to close down a rather harmless cross by Emmanuel Ekpo from the left flank. The ball was headed on by Lenhardt to the shockingly wide open Moreno who took one touch and then slotted underneath Josh Wicks for the final goal of the game. The goal could have been prevented had Rodney Wallace backtracked and gotten goal side of Moreno. When Wallace realized he had allowed Moreno too much space, it was too late to close before the Venezuelan poached another goal against United.

United will now have another two week break before returning to MLS action on July 18th at home versus the Colorado Rapids. In the meantime they will take on the Harrisburg City Islanders (USL II) on Tuesday evening in the quarterfinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup at the Maryland SoccerPlex in Germantown, MD. The match starts at 7:30pm

 

United Notes

– United was missing four starters tonight. Jaime Moreno and Luciano Emilio through injury and Santino Quaranta (USA) and Dejan Jakovic (Canada) for Gold Cup duty. Moreno and Emilio will most probably be ready for their next match on July 18th. Both of them will miss the Open Cup quarterfinal on Tuesday

– Ben Olsen played his first full 90 minute match since returning from injury. Gomez also went the full 90.

– Greg Janicki had a solid match in place of Jakovic

– Columbus was without two of their top stars as Chad Marshall and Robbie Rogers were both at the Gold Cup with the USA

United does it again, pulling off 3-3 comeback in Seattle

A late own-goal courtesy of Seattle defender Tyrone Marshall gave United an improbable 3-3 draw Wednesday night in Seattle, Washington. United battled back from 3-1 second half defecit to send home a demoralized crowd of 29,104 at Qwest Field. Second half substitute Christian Gomez scored in the 63rd minute to draw United back to within a goal at 3-2 and United pressed forward in the open match and got the equalizer in the 87th minute thanks to Marshall.

 

Chris Pontius, who scored the games opening goal in the 34th minute, whipped in a cross from the left flank that Santino Quaranta just managed to get a slight touch to. That touch put Marshall in a no-win situation as the ball caromed off his head and past Kasey Keller to stun the sell-out crowd. United has now completed it’s fifth comeback late in the match to salvage a result that seemed very much in doubt considering the overall poor defensive effort from the Black and Red.

United’s defense was torn apart on numerous occasions and if not for the heroic efforts of Josh Wicks in goal, United very well may have lost this game by a large margin. Wicks made point blank saves in the second half on Fredy Montero, Freddie Ljunberg and Sebastian Le Toux to keep United in the match after they were trailing 2-1 at the intermission.

 

United took the lead against the run of play in the 36th minute when Quaranta sent in a diagonal ball over the defense to the back post where Pontius’ one-time volley shot past Kasey Keller. The lead didn’t last very long though when in the 38th minute Seattle midfielder Osvaldo Alonso uncorked a 30-yard Goal of the Year candidate that Wicks did very well to get a hand to before it blew past him into the upper 90. Seattle fed off the energized crowed and doubled their lead after United were guilty of sloppy defending. Dejan Jakovic won the ball on the left flank and then cheaply gave the ball away to set off the counter that gave Seattle the 2-1 lead in the 45 minute. Jakovic’ casual giveaway led to Nate Jaqua slipping behind United’s defense and his seemingly weak shot was redirected by Marc Burch past the helpless Wicks and Seattle had all the momentum heading into the locker room.

 

The beginning of second half saw the defensive miscues continue as Jakovic badly mis-played a bouncing ball that allowed Montero in alone on Wicks but the big man came up with the save. It was yet another mind-numbingly bad play by United that got Seattle a 3-1 lead in the 57th minute. Luciano Emilio, showing all the rust of his one-week suspension for a red card, made a horrific backpass right to Fredy Montero who took off towards goal and managed to juke and jive his way into the box and curled a left-footed beauty through a screen of March Burch and into the far side netting.

 

In spite of their worst defensive effort of the season, United drew on their ability to know that even facing a two-goal deficit, they still had a chance. Gomez got it started when he got onto a loose ball and pushed towards the penalty area and hit a laser that beat Keller low and to his right to pull United back. Seattle coach Sigi Schmid felt relatively comfortable in pulling his three most dangerous attacking players in Montero, Ljunberg and Jaqua and it came back to bite him as United got that late equalizer that no doubt sent the calls of second-guessing towards the coach.

 

Although United felt very fortunate to get a result from this match, it has to give the team some confidence in going forward on Saturday night against the Colorado Rapids in Commerce, Colorado. United has lost both of their matches at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park and has had a terrible record overall in the Mile High City through their history. The match will be live on ComcastSportsnet at 9:30 pm EST

 

 

United Notes

 

– As has been mentioned numerous times already by various people, the Seattle Sounders FC experience simply has to be witnessed in person. Television does not do the atmosphere justice and that is only half the story. 1st Avenue in downtown Seattle is about as perfect a soccer experience that one can witness. Driving to the stadium you see countless bars absolutely packed with Seattle supporters in their green X-Box shirts and scarves and the streets flooded with passion and pride. It was an amazing thing to witness.

 

– Ben Olsen was on the 18- man roster and he’ll probably figure prominently in the match in Colorado on Saturday.

 

 

 

 

Mid-Season Musings

While United is not quite at the halfway mark of the season, I am taking this opportunity to look at what has gone right and what needs improving as they head towards the tough part of the season during the summer months. United is still very much a work in progress in trying to balance a team that is very old at the top of the team and very young at the bottom. How this meshes together will be the ultimate tell on how United will do this season

Good Starts

With very few exceptions through 13 MLS matches, United has taken the opening 45 minutes to their respective opponents. While the first half tally’s will read an 8-4 goals advantage for United, it really doesn’t tell the whole story. On the positive side of things it shows that United are coming out ready to play in most of these matches. With the exception of United trailing Chivas USA 2-0 at the half earlier this season, they have been nearly unscored upon surrendering only two goals. United have gone to the locker room with the lead in 7 of their 13 matches to date. However, they have only won two of them. Which leads to…  

Poor Finishes

I know what you’re saying. “But United had all those miracle comebacks. How is that poor finishing?”. Good question. It’s poor finishes in the sense that United have let their opponents off the hook too many times with poor finishing and criminal mistakes with little to no pressure around. It has not been very often that an opponent has simply taken the match to United this season. If anything, it’s a question of simply having the ability to finish off matches. Take your chances and leave no doubt. United hasn’t done this very well this season and thus the miracle finishes and close losses. United has had a two-goal lead for only 18 minutes total this season. The rest of the time they are either tied, ahead by one goal or trailing by one goal. United also needs to tidy up their mistakes in the second half. 13 of the 17 goals allowed have come in the second half and teams feel that if they can simply contain United and stay close, they will have a chance to get back into matches, which is exactly what has transpired this season.

I Believe in Miracles

What can you say about United’s unprecedented one month stretch from April 17th to May 16th when they pulled four results out of the fire? In all four of those matches, United were within a whisker of losing before getting late help via Ben Olsen (90th minute header to draw 1-1 with New England), Luciano Emilio and Chris Pontius (goals after stoppage time in a 3-2 win at New York), Jaime Moreno and Pontius(Moreno with PK in stoppage time and Pontius with 85th minute equalizer only to see TFC come down and re-take the lead a minute later) and finally Emilio and Santino Quaranta (77th and 86th minute goals in two-goal comeback at league leaders Chivas USA).  You could go back through the annals of United history and only find a handful of comebacks by United that rival that one month stretch of magic from the Black and Red.

Defensive Improvement

As compared to last season, United is miles ahead in terms of goals allowed. They’ve given up 17 goals in 13 matches and have 3 league shutouts, including two in their last three matches. The addition of central defender Dejan Jakovic has been more than advertised. His calmness on the ball, his very good passing ability and his closing speed are all great additions to a United defense that was pathetic last season. Bryan Namoff has been his usual stellar self and has taken it upon himself to marshall the back line from his right back position. Throw in the added improvement to his offensive game and he is having an all-league type of season. Marc Burch has been the real wild card here. Recent weeks has shown a great improvement on the defensive side of the ball and a discipline to stay home and defend first, which had never really been seen before. However, his early season form was spotty at best and only until United made the move to bring in veteran defender Avery John had we really seen an improvement in Burch’ play. John will add some much needed grit and leadership to the United back line should any injuries or suspensions rear it’s ugly head. Central defender Greg Janicki has been solid in limited time but the emergence of Jakovic has relegated him to late game mop up duty. Devon McTavish has been a non-factor this season will only a limited amount of appearances due to the good play from both the defensive corps and the midfield.

As for the goalkeeping position, it looks like Josh Wicks has stepped up to the #1 spot. Two shutouts in three matches (with game-saving stops in both shutouts) is exactly what the team has been looking for since Troy Perkins’ abrupt signing overseas before last season. Louis Crayton did not take advantage of his being the #1 coming into the season and his poor play finally culminated in him being dropped off the  18 man game-day roster for the past 5 matches (4 league and 1 Open Cup). Crayton’s hefty contract (reportedly $180,000 a year) is simply too much for a third string keeper. Come to think of it, it might be too much for a #1 in this league.

Milos Kocic is solidly in the #2 spot and might be the best keeper on the team but give credit where credit is due with Wicks. He has proven lately that he is capable of the job. Most people’s opinion of Wicks was formed from his play last season for the Galaxy. We have to remember that the Galaxy in 08′ was one of the worst defensive teams in MLS history and Iker Casillas would have looked bad playing between the pipes for the Galaxy. Wicks didn’t help his cause with a few blunders early on this season in terms of ball handling and positioning, but he seems to have risen in confidence as has his defenders in front of him.

Finally, A Draft That Pays Off

One of the loudest criticisms of United’s front office in recent seasons has been their lack of picks and subsequent lack of production from any young player they bring to the team. If it wasn’t trading picks away for older players or for allocation money, it was simply making bad draft picks. All that has appeared to have changed for United this season. Rodney Wallace (#6 pick in SuperDraft) and Chris Pontius (#7 pick) have been superlative through their first run through MLS. Wallace (2 goals, 3 assists) and Pontius (3 goals, 2 assists – 5 goals, 3 assists in all competitions) have given United an injection of speed, aggression andpassion that has rarely been seen around RFK for a long time. It doesn’t end with those two either. All of their draft picks have made an impact. 2ndRound pick goalkeeper Milos Kocic has stepped up to the #2 position ahead of Louis Crayton and has a win and two draws in all competitions. United’s other draftpick, 4th rounder Brandon Barklage has only managed to score in both of his U.S. Open Cup appearances and has shown a particular hunger that reminds a lot of people of a very young version of Ben Olsen in terms of tenacity and energy. This particular draft class could go down as the single best class United has ever produced rivaled only by the 2001 class that included Ryan Nelsen, Bryan Namoff and Santino Quaranta.

Rotation, Rotation, Rotation

Head coach Tom Soehn is bearing the fruits of having a deep roster. Not only has his team been relatively healthy (Olsen being the only long-term injury and it hasn’t been THAT long) but getting productive minutes from thier rookies has made United easily the deepest team in MLS to this point. How many other teams can bring players like Moreno and Gomez off the bench into the second half of matches? How about Fred, Emilio, Quaranta, Pontius and Wallace? Not too many. United has done that in recent weeks. Quite the luxury if you ask me.

While there are certainly critics of rotating too many players, it bears reminding of the horror show that was last season that saw Soehn field three reserve teams for their last 3 CONCACAF Champions League group matches last September. Nothing like trotting out Craig Thompson, Ryan Miller and James Thorpe as opposed to Moreno, Gomez and Fred.

The added benefit of rotating players (specifically the older gentlemen) is that United just might have a team that won’t fall flat on it’s face in October when the real pressure hits. It definitely will help that United isn’t playing in 47 different competitions like last season. Therefore I feel that if United can stay relatively injury-free for the remainder of 2009, there is no reason not to expect a good effort advancement in the  MLS Cup playoffs and in the CONCACAF Champions League group stage later this summer.

By the time late September rolls around, I do feel that Soehn will finally pick his best X1 and ride that team through the playoffs. I would expect to see the Moreno, Gomez, Fred, Olsen andEmilio getting the majority of minutes with Pontius, Wallace and Andrew Jacobson ready, willing and able to step in should the need arise.

Overall Assessment

Obviously with only 2 losses in 13 matches so far this season, it’s a great improvement over the 7 losses at this time last season. However, a closer look at the records would reveal that United is only 3 points ahead of last seasons pace. It’s plain to see though that this team has a chemistry that was non-existent last season and quite simply they have better players with the additions of Pontius, Wallace, Olsen, Wicks and Jacobson. United is also on the verge of taking over first place in a highly competitive Eastern Conference should they win their home match versus Chicago this weekend. I feel it’s only a matter of time before United can get past letting teams stay close to them and start to really gel as the summer heats up.