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United vs. Toronto FC: Late game-winner from Salihi further solidifies United’s postseason hopes

Let’s face it folks, it ain’t pretty.

Hamdi Salihi’s 88th minute goal of off a pair of dreadful mistakes from Toronto FC was all that was required in D.C. United’s 1-0 win this afternoon in Toronto, Canada. The win for United is their fourth in five matches since the season-ending injury to team captain Dwayne De Rosario and further solidifies their playoff position. United jumped, albeit briefly, into second place with the win but was pegged back down to third place with Chicago’s surprising 2-0 win at Red Bull this afternoon. Red Bull is now in fourth place trailing United by a point and Chicago by three points. All three teams have only two matches remaining in the season.

The game’s only goal came about in the 88th minute when former Maryland midfielder Jeremy Hall made a hash of a routine midfield clearance that set Maicon Santos down the right sideline. The Brazilian forged a bit of space before launching a left-footed shot on goal. United teammates Branko Boskovic and Chris Pontius were both furious with Santos as they were positioning themselves in front of goal but as the play continued, Kocic somehow managed to spill the admittedly easy save right into the path of Salihi who poked the ball into the empty net to send United to an improbable if not undeserved win.

With the win in their back pocket, United will now playing the role of cheerleader when Sporting Kansas City visits Columbus on Sunday afternoon. A loss by Columbus would virtually guarantee United their first playoff berth since 2007. United currently holds a six-point lead over the Crew and has a big lead in both tie-breaking procedures (49 goals scored to the Crew’s 39 and United is +9 on goal differential while the Crew are at 0) that would come up if United and Columbus were to end up tied on points at the end of the season.

However, United could make it all a moot point with a head-to-head win over Columbus in their next league match on October 20th. By that time, United will know exactly what they will need to advance to the postseason.

United vs Union: Pajoy payback ends United road skid as United vault to 4th place in playoff chase

When news broke of team captain Dwayne De Rosario’s season-ending knee injury a week ago, the natural reaction was to think that United once again has to relive a nightmare from the prior season (Chris Pontius’ broken leg was followed by a 1-7-1 stretch to end the season). In the absence of their captain, someone would have to step up and take the mantle of team leader. Clearly Chris Pontius’ application made it to the top of the pile as his assist to Lionard Pajoy was the difference in United’s 1-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union tonight at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Pontius had a goal and an assist in United’s last game, a come-from-behind 2-1 win over the New England Revolution last weekend in D.C. just two days after learning De Rosario’s fate.

And while the game video of D.C. United’s 1-0 win won’t be making the trip to the Major League Soccer Hall of Fame anytime soon, this game served as a reminder that you don’t have to play beautiful flowing soccer to get desired results.  A ragged match between two teams clearly trying to find their own identities devolved into a sloppy turnover-filled affair. Pajoy made his return back to PPL Park to face his former team since the trade last month that sent Danny Cruz northbound on I-95 and pulled off the ultimate redemption by scoring the game-winning goal in the 67th minute and virtually eliminating his former side from the MLS playoff race.

The win for United (14-10-5, 47 points) breaks a six-game road losing skid and pushes United past both Columbus (45 pts) and Houston (46 pts) and into 4th place in the Eastern Conference. All three teams have five matches remaining in the season but no result was bigger than this one this season for the Black-and-Red.

A very disjointed first half from both sides saw scant few chances with only Chris Pontius’ 35-yard free kick being the only credible chance at goal for both sides. United goalkeeper Bill Hamid showed a signs of nervousness when he misplayed three separate attempts to clear balls from the penalty area and almost gifted the home side with a goal midway through the first half.

After the break both Hamid and United started to settle into the match and starting dictating to the Union. Fielding a very young side without any real goalscoring threats the home team generated very little all game long except for a few nervy moments in United’s penalty area late in the match.

United’s breakthrough in the 67th minute came courtesy of the fresh legs of substitute Maicon Santos. The Brazilian triggered a quick and rare counter attack with a perfectly weighted 30-yard pass between two Union defenders and right into the stride of Pontius. United’s newly appointed talisman made a move on Union defender Gabriel Farfan that freed him deep in the penalty area. Former University of Maryland goalkeeper Zac MacMath cut down Pontius’ angle to goal but the fourth-year player from UC-Santa Barbara calmly chipped the ball to the penalty spot where Pajoy chested the ball down and rifled home a shot just an instant before former United midfielder Brian Carroll could knock it away.

Philadelphia could only muster a few half-chances that sent nerves jangling a bit through the United defense but the Black-and-Red held on to the vital three road points and renewed some confidence heading into a weekend match up on Sunday afternoon against an admittedly poor Chivas USA side.

With a win on Sunday, United could further fortify their playoff positioning and with some help from the New England Revolution (who host New York Red Bull on Saturday night) could move into third place in the East.

Just a week ago that scenario didn’t even seem remotely possible.

United gives up Cruz in trade with Philadelphia; Was this the right move?

On Thursday afternoon, D.C. United traded 22-year old midfielder Danny Cruz to the Philadelphia Union for 31-year old Colombian forward Lionard Pajoy and an International Player slot. That international slot was then used to add Pijoy to United’s roster as they had just traded away an international spot to Portland in the Mike Chabala trade from last week.

My immediate reaction to this news was one of stunned silence. Not quite the same reaction most United fans got when they heard the news just over 12 months ago when the Black-and-Red acquired Dwayne De Rosario, but a quizical reaction none the less. It jarred me because so much was made about the under the radar addition of Danny Cruz during the offseason and how he seems so much to be a Ben Olsen-esque type of player. Why would United give up on him so soon?

After taking the night to ponder the reasons behind this move I’ve come up with a few thoughts on the move and what it means going forward:

1) Was this a panic move in the face of the team dropping further down the Eastern Conference standings?

Yes and No. I agree, quite the fence sitter I am. Yes in the sense that bringing in another forward in an already jammed forward position seems a bit of overkill – especially a forward with a higher salary ($180,000 per season) and higher age as opposed to Cruz ($100,000) and his still 10-year career ahead of him.

No in the sense that of the forward options, only De Rosario right now is a viable option up top due. Sure, we can add Chris Pontius up top and no one would really argue the point as he has been the only productive player the past month or so, but having him on the wing adds a special dimension to United’s already predictable attack. Maicon Santos (toe injury) and Hamdi Salihi (virus) have not been options the past two weeks and the recently acquired Long Tan is raw at best. At least Pajoy has scored 5 goals and added a few assists for a rather young Philadelphia squad. But how does this help United? Well, it gives United another target forward of sorts as Santos has been the only one capable of playing that role. DeRo, Pontius and Salihi are much better suited running off of another forward. DeRo and Pontius are creators/finishers while Salihi is pretty much chisled in stone as a goal poacher.

2) What does this mean for Maicon Santos and Hamdi Salihi?

I think this probably hurts Santos more than Salihi. As mentioned earlier, Santos and Pajoy have similar games. The problem with Santos now is a toe injury and those don’t go away quickly. Also you have to add in the fact of Santos’ track record through his first 4 seasons here in MLS – it’s been the same wherever he’s gone. Score early, score often and then somehow fade into oblivion. Can you not say this is exactly what has happened so far with Santos? Granted, he’s done more with United in just over half a season than he has ever done in previous stops in Toronto, Dallas and Chivas USA, but is it too much to ask right now for him to recapture that magic from late March through May?

The move to get Pijoy tells me that the coaching staff would say yes, it’s too much to ask right now.

As for Salihi, he is a unique talent on this squad. He’s been great in the role of a second-half sub that poaches goals and puts games to rest. This is critically important for any team looking to get back to the playoffs. The problem has been when Salihi has been a starter. He just doesn’t seem to mesh well with his quicker teamates throughout the field. Salihi, to his credit, makes good runs but is often overlooked on these runs and it get’s magnified over a 90 minute stretch. There’s been a lot of speculation amongst United’s faithful fanbase that this move will signal the end of Salihi’s time at United. I don’t feel that is the case at all. That doesn’t mean there isn’t reason for concern.

The problem here for Salihi is two-fold. One, he has a gauranteed contract that runs through the 2013 season and Two, he’s getting paid DP money. I’m not sure about the rest of you, but I don’t think Olsen and Technical Director Dave Kasper had a second-half sub role in mind for their goalscoring find from Europe in the offseason.

These are the chances you take when you sign these Designated Players. You may have an inkling of how a player can fit into your squad or how quickly they can adjust to the admittedly physical and athletic prowess of MLS in general, but at the end of the day, it’s only game time which will be the ultimate decider in how that adjustment is made. Right now finacially Hamdi’s juice isn’t worth the squeeze, but I do maintain that he does play a vital role for this team by the time all is said and done this season. Goal poachers are not easy to come by in this league and I’m perfectly willing to have Hamdi play that second-half sub role for the remainder of the season. Next year however, he will have to find a way to integrate himself into the starting X1 and play at a level that will keep him there. Otherwise, it’s another DP playing part-time minutes and not contributing (sound familiar Branko?)

3) There goes some midfield depth

Yes, jettisoning Cruz hurts United’s depth in midfield for sure, but with the resurgence of Nick DeLeon over the past few games and the return of Andy Najar from the Olympics, Cruz wasn’t going to get much playing time anyway. Throw in the MLS Best X1 form from Pontius and the experience and steadiness of a Lewis Neal, then the decision was an easy one for the Braintrust to make.

The downside to this of course is that you let a 22-year old player go who embodied the 90 MPH in-your-face type of play that this team quite honestly has been missing for years. While it’s nice to play some pretty soccer (as United has done mostly at RFK this season but failed miserably to do on the road – that’s a column for another day), it’s just as nice to know that the other team fears playing against players like Danny Cruz. No doubt United will feel that wrath this upcoming Sunday night.

4) Is United better for making this trade? 

If this team truly was concerned with their future makeup, then moving Cruz was a bad move in terms of building the squad beyond this season. Giving up on youth that has plenty of playoff experience is never a good thing. Does Danny Cruz remind anyone of the skill that Najar possesses? No, but we knew that off the bat. We knew that Cruz was a worker bee on the wing that lacked the special flair of a Najar and his finishing ability. But sometimes it’s even more important to prevent other teams from scoring than it is to wow the locals with panache and an assortment of SportsCenter Top 10 type of moves.

If I had to make a choice, I would say Philadelphia in the long run will make out better on this deal because Cruz is younger and cheaper than Pajoy. Also, Cruz has a history with head coach John Hackworth with the U-17’s whereas Pajoy is coming into this team cold and is being expected to contribute right away. I don’t think Cruz is under the same type of pressure that Pajoy will be initially to contribute and that could go a long way towards deciding who makes out better in the long run.

The move for Pajoy seems a bit knee-jerk right now and may benefit United in the short term if he can score some goals right away. Long term though I don’t see this as a win for United. My guess is at the start of next season either Pajoy or Santos will be with this team, but not both of them. If it turns out that Pajoy was simply a 12-game rental, then it’s a landslide in Philadelphia’s favor.

 

All that being said, it certainly was an interesting move and one that will be highly debated over the remaining few months of the MLS

United vs Montreal: United back in control with 3-0 win over Impact

After back-to-back matches on the road in which D.C. United were thoroughly outplayed, the Black-and-Red enjoyed their brief visit back to RFK Stadium with a complete and professional 3-0 pasting of the expansion Montreal Impact (5-10-3  18 points). The win for United (10-5-3  33 points) gives them their sixth consecutive home win and eighth of the season overall. Both win totals are the highest from United since the 2008 season.

Chris Pontius’ goal (9th of the season) right before halftime and Robbie Russell’s first goal with United just five minutes into the second half were more than enough on a very sticky evening in front of a season high 18,302 fans on East Capitol Street.

United started the match a bit slowly trying to feel out their Canadian neighbors to the North but once the realization that Montreal’s injury-shortened squad were more interesting in putting bodies behind the ball the game started to open up for United.

Maicon Santos stinging drive from 28 yards away in the 20th minute was well saved by Montreal goalkeeper Evan Bush. Chris Pontius and Branko Boskovic almost finished off great individual moves a few minutes later but it was a harbinger of things to come for Montreal.

Pontius put United up 1-0 in the 45th minute with a beautiful individual effort that spun MLS debutant Calum Mallace into the ground. Pontius received a pass from Dwayne De Rosario on the left flank and after a pair of sharp cut-back moves Pontius blasted an angled left-footed drive to the far post for the lead.

After the break United essentially put the game away with another goal in the 50th minute provided by the left-foot of Branko Boskovic. Boskovic’ free kick was perfectly curled and met Robbie Russell in stride who flicked it past the motionless Bush for the 2-0 lead.

After this point, United played keep away from Montreal with the  occasional venture towards goal with the mindset of forcing Montreal to chase United during the stifling humid conditions. As the game wore on the hope started to drain from the visitors and in the 90th minute the deal was sealed when substitute Hamdi Salihi poked in a rebound goal (his fifth of the season) after a nice save from Bush on Nick DeLeon.

United will have another two-week break from league action and will return to play in Houston on July 15th to begin a two-game road trip that will conclude in Columbus on July 21st..

United vs Revolution: United survive furious Revolution rally; climb to 1st Place in the East with 3-2 victory

Maicon Santos’ go-ahead goal in the 61st minute helped D.C. United to a 3-2 win tonight over the visiting New England Revolution at RFK Stadium. With the win United (8-4-3  27 pts) vaulted over idle New York Red Bull and into first place in the Eastern Conference ahead of their two-week break from league play. The Revolution (4-7-1  13 pts) almost pulled off a stunning result, rallying from a 2-0 first half deficit by scoring twice inside the first five minutes of the second half before Santos fired United ahead.

United took the lead in the 15th minute when Brandon McDonald flicked a header from a Branko Boskovic free kick over the head of Revolution goalkeeper Matt Reis. United doubled their lead in first half stoppage time when United’s Dejan Jakovic scored on a goal mouth scramble from a corner kick. It was the first goal of the season for each of United’s central defenders and the first of Jakovic’ MLS career.

After the break the Revolution stormed back to level the match at 2-2 before many of the 14, 627 fans at RFK could find their seats. Saer Sene followed up a wicked long-range blast from Benny Feilhaber in the 48th minute for his team leading sixth goal of the season. Just two minutes later the match was tied when defender A.J. Soares beat a United defender to a corner kick and his header flicked into the far side netting and the a new match was born.

The Revolution continued to send numbers forward and paid for their aggressiveness in the 61st minute with a well-crafted sequence from the Black-and-Red to retake the lead. Substitute Maicon Santos, only on the field for five minutes, made a dazzling spin move between two Revs defenders in midfield and headed towards goal. His pass to Dwayne De Rosario freed the Canadian into the penalty area and with  Hamdi Salihi open in front of goal, De Rosario chose to pass back towards the penalty spot to Santos who’s first-time strike was too precise for Reis.  The goal for Santos was his team leading 7th of the season.

United then were forced into their own end of the field for the remainder of the match and had to fight off a number of dangerous chances from the Revolution. Once chance in particular saved the three points for United when goalkeeper Bill Hamid acrobatically leaped to his left to fingertip a goal-bound header from rookie midfielder Kelyn Rowe over the bar in stoppage time to help preserve United’s third win in a row.

United is now on a two-week break from league play and will remain in first place due to the fact that only two games are scheduled league-wide in that span because of World Cup qualifying beginning in early June. United’s next league match will be away to the suddenly reeling Philadelphia Union on June 16th.

United Notes

  • United is four games above .500 for the first time since June of 2008. Three wins in a row are their most since that same time period in 2008
  • Nick DeLeon made his first start since injuring his hamstring in training in early May. Jakovic made his first start since facing New England in Foxboro in April
  • Emiliano Dudar made the bench for the first time since injuring his hamstring in United’s 3-2 win over Houston in mid-May

United makes it two in a row with 3-2 win over the Houston Dynamo

D.C. United won it’s second game in a row for the first time in since 2009 (88 tries) with a 3-2 win over the Houston Dynamo at RFK Stadium in Washington D.C. With the win United extended its unbeaten streak to 7 games in league play. Photos: Martin Fernandez

Maicon Santos

United vs Houston: United finally wins back-to-back matches with wild 3-2 win

Maicon Santos continues his hot start to the 2012 MLS season with a pair of goals to lead D.C. United to a wild 3-2 win last night over the Houston Dynamo at RFK Stadium. The win finally puts to rest the 88-match streak of not winning back-t0-back games in league play that began in June of 2009. The win was the first over Houston in their past 6 meetings and their first since 2009 as well. Dwayne De Rosario also scored for United to keep the Black-and-Red on a seven-match unbeaten run.

United got on the board early in the 11th minute thanks in part to a big miscue from the Houston defense. Brandon McDonald launched a hopeful ball into the offensive third where Dynamo central defender Geoff Cameron badly mistimed his attempted headed clearance and Chris Pontius broke in on goal. Houston goalkeeper Tally Hall came out to cut down the angle and Pontius easily skipped by him but had no angle to shoot on goal. Pontius steadied himself and curled in a cross that Santos headed into the empty net for the 1-0 lead.

The remainder of the half saw United with a few more dangerous chances at goal by Santos, Nick DeLeon and Pontius but nothing came of it for United.  United defender Emiliano Dudar pulled up with a hamstring injury just as the first half was coming to a close and was subbed out for Marcelo Saragosa. That forced a back line shuffle that saw Robbie Russell move centrally and Perry Kitchen move over to right back for the remainder of the match.

Right out the gate the visiting Dynamo took advantage of Dudar’s absence by pressuring from the jump. Their pressure resulted in a goal in the 50th minute through typical Dynamo measures. Left-back Jermaine Taylor was locked in a dual with United midfielder Danny Cruz along the left side line heading towards United’s goal when Cruz went to the ground and released Taylor to whip in a cross that was volleyed by Will Bruin past Joe Willis for a 1-1 tie.

Up to that point in the match, Willis had hardly touched the ball. United reacted quickly though and regained the lead just three minutes later. Dwayne De Rosario was on United’s left flank and whipped a ball curling towards the far post. At first it seemed that it might have grazed off the head of either Houston defender Bobby Boswell or Chris Pontius before it hit the far post and redirected into the goal. De Rosario was finally credited with the goal when replays showed that it did seem to avoid both players.

Dudar’s absence was magnified in the 59th minute when once again Houston drew level. However, it was United at fault on two fronts for the game-tying goal. Perry Kitchen was lax in moving a ball up field as Houston’s Corey Ashe deflected the pass back towards United’s goal. Will Bruin pounced on the loose ball and shot it on goal where Joe Willis seemed to have it covered. However, the wet conditions on the night perhaps played a factor as it squeezed out of his hands and into the goal. Incredibly, this was the 5th goal that Will Bruin has scored against United in only three matches. Bruin has eight total career goals in just his second year in MLS.

Once again though United answered the call and retook the lead for good in the 70th minute. Daniel Woolard got hold of a ball all alone on the left flank and whipped in a cross that Santos headed just over the fingertips of Tally Hall and off the underside of the crossbar for the match winner. United nearly scored a fourth goal on a fantastic counter attack run by De Rosario. De Ro took hold of a well-defended corner kick deep in United territory and sprinted towards Houston’s goal. On the way he maneuvered in and out of defensive pressure and was bearing down on goal. He passed to his left to a wide-open Woolard who returned the pass to De Ro who in turn flicked the ball over the approaching defender to himself only to see his volley smothered by Hall at the last second. Had the goal been scored, it would have gone down in team and league annals as one of the best goals ever scored at RFK Stadium.

As it happened, United played out the final twenty minutes without giving up a dangerous opportunity for Houston to draw and the Black-and-Red were left celebrating back-t0-back wins for the first time in nearly three calendar years.

United must now turn their attention to a very difficult three-game road stretch which begins at red hot San Jose on Wednesday night. After that is a midday match up with bottom of MLS Toronto FC before ending the trip in Houston in two weeks to open their brand new stadium. United will not return to RFK until Wednesday, May 16th.

 

 

 

Chris Pontius avoids the mark of NY midfielder Victor Palsson on his way to his third goal of the night in DC's 4-1 victory over NY Red Bull. With the win, United extended their unbeaten run to six games and vaulted past their northern neighbors into second place in the Eastern Conference. Photo: Martin Fernandez.

United vs. Red Bull: Pontius hat trick powers United to 4-1 rout over Red Bull

Chris Pontius scored three times to lead D.C. United to an emphatic 4-1 win over bitter rivals New York Red Bull tonight at soggy RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. With the win, United extended their unbeaten run to six games and vaulted past their northern neighbors and into second place in the Eastern Conference. Rookie Nick DeLeon scored his third goal of the season to round out the scoring for United before Thierry Henry’s beautiful free-kick goal wrapped up the scoring on the night.

United got started early in the 8th minute as Pontius surprised Henry on the ball and took it off him and headed for goal. Henry collapsed to the ground hoping for a foul call that never came. Pontius then unleashed a 22-yard bullet that whizzed by Red Bull goalkeeper Ryan Meara for the 1-0 lead. United had started the match very crisply despite the poor conditions that existed with a cold steady rain. United were linking passes all over the field that had Red Bull scrambling in frustration.

That frustration was doubled in the 32nd minute with a bit of skill and fortune for United. Maicon Santos got hold of the ball deep along the left sideline and managed to bull his way past three Red Bull defenders before squaring a ball through the goalmouth. The ball ended up deflecting off Red Bull defender Conner Lade and right into the path of Pontius who easily smashed the ball into the goal from about two feet away. Lade, making his starting debut for the shorthanded Red Bell defense, was also the victim on United’s third goal of the game just four minutes later. A bad clearance by Red Bull ping-ponged the ball into the penalty area. Lade seemed to have a bead on the ball but was easily muscled off the ball by Dwayne De Rosario who controlled it and then laid off a pass to the onrushing Nick DeLeon. The rookie from Louisville put the shot on goal only to have Red Bull defender Markus Holgersson deflect it past the helpless Meara for a 3-0 lead.

After the break, Red Bull made two substitutions straight away and started to apply desperate pressure on United. United’s defense lead by the return of Argentine defender Emiliano Dudar was up to the challenge and thwarted all attempts to bring Red Bull back into the match. Goalkeeper Joe Willis made back-to-back saves on long range efforts from Henry and Kenny Cooper to keep the Black-and-Red in total control. Chris Pontius then sealed the match in the 69th minute with his third goal on the night and fourth of the season through determination and skill. Pontius latched onto a loose ball about 30 yards from goal and managed to weave through the Red Bull defense before slipping the ball into the net and past the onrushing Meara for a 4-0 lead for United. “Chris still hasn’t learned to play forward yet”, said head coach Ben Olsen after the match. “I know it sounds strange after the game he had, but there are still some things that he needs to learn.”

Red Bull did manage a bit of consolation in the 72nd minute when Thierry Henry curled a 25-yard free kick over United’s defensive wall and just inside the near post for his league leading eighth goal of the season. United managed to easily play out the remaining twenty minutes and give United a big win against their bitter rivals.

Next up for United is the always difficult Houston Dynamo next Saturday evening at RFK Stadium. Again United will have another opportunity to finally end what is currently an 88-match streak of not winning back-to-back matches in league play.

United Notes

  • Andy Najar and Branko Boskovic were unused subs by Ben Olsen tonight
  • It doesn’t look like Bill Hamid will be getting any starts anytime soon either as Ben Olsen said that Willis is the starter right now