United has been thoroughly outcoached and self-destructed to lose their opener, then outworked and broken down to lose their home opener, and now they were outplayed, but flat out gifted a potential point by an expansion team, yet let it slip agonizingly away for their third straight loss to open the season. Now, I know DC started 0-3 in 2007 and rebounded to win the Supporter’s Shield and of course the ’96 team went 0-4 before rebounding to win the inaugural MLS Cup, but does anyone actually think that’s the route this particular herd of cats is going to take?
It also seems apparent the team and coach are about as frustrated as jackrabbit on a desert island if the quotes being floated this week are any indication. To me the most telling quote comes from United icon, Jaime Moreno. He’s the most accomplished MLS player in history and has obviously seen it all being the only player to play in all of MLS’ 15 years.
“To be honest with you, I’m just tired of saying, ‘What do I take from this game,’” Jaime Moreno said after the Philadelphia match. “Very simple: We lost and we’re not good enough. We’ve got to know that and we’ve got to go back to work and figure it out — how to win and how to become a better team.”
“We need to sort it out,” said Jaime Moreno continued. “I don’t think we’ve started this bad before” (clearly he has understandably blocked 2000 from his conscious mind). “It’s just very hard to understand what happened because we worked so hard during the week and come into the game and it seems like luck is not on our side. Players get injured, we get sent off. It’s hopefully not one of those years. But we’ve got to dig deep, work together and keep believing that this can turn around.”
He gets even more agitated when asked about being surprised by United’s poor results given the positive results of the pre-season. “A little bit. We thought that we were that good, and we got a slap in the face. We all have to step up and do the job. We know that. I just don’t want to talk anymore — talk, talk, talk doesn’t resolve the problems. We have to work and put it on the field.”
Now, I’m telling you, Jaime is a master at saying all the right things and while honest, is usually pretty generic not really saying anything earth shattering. Well, if you dissect this little missive, he’s flat out saying this team isn’t good enough, that they basically have no idea how to fix their problems, and that this thing is close to spiraling out of control given the current situation. Also it sounds like he’s getting a bit sick of looking for positives as the losses mount too, if his first sentence is any indication of his true feelings and not just a frustrated lament to repeated media questions on the same topic.
Now obviously, Jaime’s a professional athlete who hates to lose any time he takes the field, so he’s clearly emotional and maybe over-reacting just after losing a game to a team they should never have lost to. But this is also a guy who has played over 300 games in MLS and knows how long the season is and how thin the line is between good teams and bad ones. For him to be this frustrated and gloomy only three games into the season is shocking.
Onalfo, while maybe more delusional, isn’t much happier either. “I told them I am pissed. I am pissed off. We shouldn’t be 0-3, and we are. The only way to get through it, you have two decisions: You can cry and whine about it and complain and make excuses and over-analyze it like everybody else is going to do, or we can actually get back down to business, continue to work and fight through it. We’re going to get through it. I have all the confidence in the world.”
Now, being one who regularly looks for excuses and rabidly over-analyzes, I like the fact he’s not really wasting time on recriminations or what ifs. Obviously getting down to work and fighting through this hideous state of affairs are all good things, too. But, that last statement about having all the confidence in the world, and another quote yesterday about how well United responded after going down 2-0, and then responded to the loss in practice Tuesday is a bit troubling. Granted he can’t exactly say he’s not confident, or give Philly the credit for DC getting back into that game, or certainly can’t say that the team’s morale stinks. But then again why volunteer such stuff to begin with? Who’s he trying to convince?
But aside from “hard work”, what exactly is DC going to do to “figure out” how to solve their problems? And how are they going to do it without their top three defenders and a clearly jittery goalkeeper? Perkins was supposed to solidify and lead a young defense, but cheating behind that wall allowing the winning goal is not the sign of a keeper confident in the guys in front of him.
Now Perkins aside, as you have to assume he bounces back from this disastrous match or DC is really toast, United has to begin their dramatic turn-around without Pena, Jakovic, and Namoff (still months away it appears). Even if McTavish is back to full strength, it’ll be his first game action of the year on that right side. Then the glacially slow Talley will have to man the middle next to calamity James, with ball watching Wallace on the left. Not exactly a confidence building group there, especially as Simms remains out leaving Morsinck holding down the fort in midfield, but hopefully Onalfo can wire them up to the proper level of intensity to keep the game close.
Assuming United’s so far anemic midfield and forwards can actually complete a number of consecutive passes and make more than a few credible attempts to score that aren’t the result of gifts from their opponents, then the defense’s job will be that much easier. Now, on that front DC has some pretty serious questions still to answer as Onalfo has to finally make some tough decisions on what style of midfield DC is going to play and where some key players are going to line up.
DC has been set on a modified diamond midfield with Santino forward and Morsinck behind, but with both of them having offensive and defensive responsibilities. For the most part that has not worked, as much for the lack of success from the wide positions as from the lack of production from Tino and Morstink. Granted, if Simms was playing, things might be different, but waiting on him is simply not an option right now. United did much better in midfield in Philly in the second half with more of a box midfield with Tino out wider and Barklage slogging away in the middle with Morsinck.
Then there’s the question of who’s the left corner of the box. Obviously, the team wanted that person to be Castillo, but despite obvious talent, he simply is not being effective enough. He gets deep and seems to combine well with others for the most aside from a few too many dribbles into trouble that happen from players trying to do too much. But strangely the ball never ends up in the box. All the dazzle in the world out wide is meaningless if the ball never gets into the danger zone. Pontius, both in KC and in Philly was more effective in those 90 minutes in midfield combined than Castillo has done since he’s been here. Not really a knock on him either as he could still be adjusting to the league, but DC has to get back on track now and again can’t wait too much longer.
So, if the brainstaff are willing to bite the bullet and backtrack on their desire to see Pontius only play forward and Santino being their new central midfielder because of the extreme circumstances they are faced with right now, then maybe DC can get down to the business of generating some consistent offense, and if that starts to click, DC United is back in the hunt for points despite their talent deficit.
However, even after the lineup problems are solved, DC still has some serious tactical issues to resolve. It is obvious Allsopp wants the ball played early as he makes runs immediately when anyone collects the ball in a dangerous spot, but is being ignored for the most part. Amusingly, he works so hard he actually cycles back for another run but is frustrated there because while his teammates have thankfully finally looked up, the defense has had time to cut out the easy option to him and the ball gets fumbled around the area until lost.
Also, DC players especially the wide ones have to be aggressive going at defenses and the wide defenders have to get up field, which is not really happening much either. When Wallace or Talley or James got up field, DC looked dangerous, when they didn’t there was no sustained pressure and DC looked feeble, well except against NE who basically gave United the ball for most of that match.
Now, here’s the thing, these are basic soccer plays and strategy. DC doesn’t have to do brain surgery (except maybe on Kung Fu James) they just need to do basic things very well to give themselves the chance to win assuming they work hard enough. Pontius and Quaranta going at defenders or swinging in early crosses to Allsopp will create goals in this league. Moreno helping create under the forward line will help the midfield if he continues to play quickly, draw fouls, or just be his normal clever self. Sustained pressure and two players covering in front of a fragile backline right now will allow the defense time to breathe and regroup without requiring the defense to be perfect all the time.
Bottom line though is DC has to win now, they are running out of easy games. Four of next five are at home, the Fire are struggling right now and NY is still finding its road form (hopefully we get the Chivas version as opposed to the Seattle), then revenge on KC, away to Dallas, and Colorado back here. The schedule is much tougher as the summer gets into full swing and DC’s season could be over if they don’t get the ship righted immediately.
Going 0 for the first month could be the death knell on the season. As far as I know (and I would check this if MLSnet was still around but sadly some hideous monster has taken its place) no MLS team has started 0-3 and even made the playoffs, much less won anything significant, except for those two DC aberrations in ’96 and ’07. Certainly no team recently, Dallas was 0-3 last year and missed, before that TFC, RSL, and Chivas were 0-3 I believe and obviously didn’t make it. Even the most undeserving Cup winners ever, RSL last year and LA in ’05 stunk early on, but got points in their home openers.
Regardless, even comparing this team to those aberrant teams of the past, the 2007 United team had upper tier talent and this team does not, so that comparison is out. But the ’96 team is actually a tempting comparison. They were terrible in the beginning, but steadily acquired players like Simpson, Rammel, Sanneh, Maessner, Vaudrueil, and then Moreno took them over the top. This team has salary space and plenty of deadweight to replace if talent comes along. Of course, that would require a brainstaff to recognize the need for more talent, but that’s an article for another day.