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United’s 1-1 draw with L.A. Firpo leaves their Champions League future in doubt

D.C. United continued their uninspired play of late and now leave their CONCACAF Champions League future in doubt with their 1-1 draw last night against L.A. Firpo at muggy RFK Stadium in front of 8,026 fans. Jaime Moreno’s 42nd minute penatly kick conversion tied the match after United defender Greg Janicki gift-wrapped the visitors opening goal by Mario Benitez in the 26th minute.

By virtue of the 1-1 draw and with the away goals rule in place, United now has to either win straight out next Tuesday in El Salvador, or at the very least has to get a 1-1 draw (which would take the teams into two extra-time sessions and possibly penalties afterwards if still tied). A multiple goal draw will see United advance to the group stages of the Champions League. A Firpo win or 0-0 draw will see them through.

Head coach Tom Soehn decided to start only three of his normal starters mostly because of the fixture congestion that has enveloped the squad in recent weeks. After playing on the West coast on Saturday and seeing another away match in Houston (as well as the return leg on Tuesday next) this Saturday, his hand was forced in an attempt to give some key players some rest. Ben Olsen and Fred didn’t even make the 18-man squad last night and his ultimate hope was to leave Luciano Emilio, Christian Gomez and Chris Pontius on the bench for as long as possible. That all ended in the 26th minute.

Greg Janicki pulled off a double mistake in the back that gifted the visitors a precious away goal and the lead in the match. Janicki, under no pressure whatsoever, tried to thread a 20 yard pass upfield to a teamate only to see it land squarely on the foot of a Firpo midfielder. Seconds later the ball got turned right back over to Janicki at the top of the penalty area. With a United teamate directly in front and one to the left of Janicki, the second-year defender inexplicably tried to cut back on Firpo attacker Mario Benitez and easily got stripped of the ball. The Colombian striker then hit a left-footed strike underneath Milos Kocic for the shock 1-0 lead.

United continued their stupifyingly poor play with a series of bad passes, poor touches and overweighted passes that put teamates in constant trouble. However, a gift from referee Paul Delgadillo in the 41st minute gave United a lifeline. Rodney Wallace was tripped up on the box and the United was awarded a penalty. Replays showed minimal contact, if any at all, on the play. Moreno stepped up and easily converted for the goal and the teams were level at 1-1.

In the second half not much changed for United as the hot and humid weather seemed to affect their play. They seemed sluggish and non-responsive for most of the remainder of the match. However, they did have two golden opportunities to win the match. Rodney Wallace had his 70th minute bid blocked after some nice work by Chris Pontius deep along the right flank gave his fellow rookie the opportunity. Wallace was involved in United’s other glorious chance to win the match in the 90th minute. A lovely exchange along the left sideline between Wallace and Pontius sent Wallace into the box, His cutback pass ended on the foot of Christian Gomez and his effort was well saved by Firpo goalkeeper Juan Jose Gomez and United’s evening came to a disappointing end.

United Notes

– United is now 0-5-2 all-time in the reformatted Champions League

– Usual starters Marc Burch, Josh Wicks Bryan Namoff were on the 18-man roster but did not see game action

– M Ely Allen was on the bench as well but did not see his debut for the Black and Red

– United is still in negotiations with Burundi defender David Habarugira

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

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

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.

Moreno’s penalty follows United’s early season script in wild 3-3 draw at RFK

Let’s see if this sounds familiar to anyone.

Take the lead after commanding most, if not all of the play in the first half. Give up the tying goal against the run of play, fall behind and then either defy the odds and score late to win or simply just score the tying goal in stoppage time to save your bacon.

That has seemingly been the script for United in the first third of this MLS season. Jaime Moreno’s 92nd minute penalty conversion was the final goal in  a wild and wacky 3-3 draw with visiting Toronto FC in front of 15,652 spectators at RFK Stadium tonight. The goal was necessary because Dwayne De Rosario scored a goal of the year candidate in the 87th minute to give Toronto the shock 3-2 lead. Undaunted, United pressed forward for the equalizer and were correctly awarded a penalty when a ball was served into the box only to see Toronto captain Jim Brennan reach out his arm to deflect the ball away. Referee Baldomero Toledo did not hesitate to point to the spot and MLS’ all-time goal scoring leader roofed his kick past Stefan Frei to send RFK into hysteria.

The beginning of the match had a more mellow tone as United commanded the ball and rarely allowed Toronto to get across midfield much less string a pair of passes together. United’s movement off the ball and fluidity in attack was rewarded in the 9th minute when Ange N’Silu scored his first ever MLS goal. The goal wasn’t the prettiest in United history but it did the job. Devon McTavish, one of a stunning eight changes from Wednesday nights 1-1 draw in Kansas City, found his way down the left flank and crossed dangerously into the box forcing a punchout from Frei. United midfielder Fred quickly pounced on the ball and headed it to an open Rodney Wallace who’s theatrical side-volley attempt whiffed except for a slight touch that brought it back into the path of Fred. Fred quickly shuttled the ball to his right to an open N’Silu who took a controlling touch before scooping the ball past Frei for a 1-0 lead.

United then seemed to drop off their high pressure and allowed the visitors back into the match. Although Toronto didn’t register a shot on goal in the first 45 minutes, they did test goalkeeper Milos Kocic with a number of crosses that the Serbian easily controlled. United seemed to score in the 43rd minute when Rodney Wallace stripped Adrian Serioux in midfield and sped towards the top of the penalty area. With plenty of options the rookie from the University of Maryland slipped a ball behind the TFC defense for Christian Gomez who slotted easily past Frei only for the play to be ruled offside.

After the break N’Silu’s angled drive was saved by Frei in the 52nd minute and resulting long ball from Frei caused all kinds of problems for United’s defense. The seemingly harmless kick was allowed to bounce at the top of the goal area by Dejan Jakovic in an attempt to shield De Rosario from the advancing Kocic. Confusion reigned at that point and the inexperienced goalkeeper hesitated and gave De Rosario the chance to slip in and flip the ball over United’s keeper for the game-tying goal. The goal seemed to stun United as they had seemingly been in complete control of the match. In the 63rd minute a questionable free kick was awarded to Toronto on the right flank and the resulting free kick was headed into the far side netting by Adrian Serioux to give Toronto a suprising 2-1 lead.

United countered by bringing on substitutes Santino Quaranta, Jaime Moreno and Chris Pontius to try and salvage the match. United appeared to do just that in the 86th minute with a beautifully set up goal that had the magic hand of Jaime Moreno all over it. Rodney Wallace, playing his best match as a professional, got in behind Marvell Wynne and sent a ball back towards the penalty spot and the onrushing Moreno. Moreno then pulled off a classic dummy move and rookie Chris Pontius roofed the pass for the equalizing goal.

As the fans at RFK were celebrating the goal, the visitors took advantage of a United turnover in an attempt to grab the game-winner. De Rosario latched onto the ball at midfield and took off towards United’s goal with the defense in retreat. Instead of choosing to tactically foul to stop the counter attack, United defender Bryan Namoff took a half hearted lunge at the ball and De Ro easily deked to the inside and then curled a beautiful shot from 22 yards past the helpless Kocic.

A United team from seasons past might have just packed it in and felt sorry for themselves but it’s clear that this seasons team is putting together a special season and they went to the well once again and somehow managed to pull out another result when it didn’t seem possible.

United Notes

  • Ben Olsen and Andrew Jacobsen were rested in this match. Olsen made the 18 man team sheet while Jacobsen didn’t.
  • Louis Crayton sat his second consecutive league match at home in favor of Kocic. Is something brewing here?
  • United scored the first goal for the 8th time in 9 matches this season. Their record in those matches is 2-1-5.
  • United has surrendered 12  of their 13 goals allowed in the second half.


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