The State of United: Getting Better, but Crucial Stretch Just Ahead

Now that DC United has discovered their offense and tightened up their defense for the most part there is now a sense that United has become competent enough to give them a decent chance for points against most teams in the league. More importantly, finally realizing and implementing the proper level of intensity it takes to succeed in MLS, the Black and Red cannot now be merely penciled in as the loser on any given weekend. They are a dangerous team in that they can beat you on a good day or if you give them a chance by making mistakes.

All of which is a relief and bodes reasonably well for the future especially when the team finally gets healthy, and maybe some summer reinforcements arrive. But unfortunately, DC has to start piling up points right away before the World Cup break, or their season could seriously be all but over by mid-June.

Now, it’s commonly thought that the MLS season is so long that teams can coast for a bit and just get hot in the end to make the playoffs, even make a run for the Cup. But while that may have been true in the past when most of the league made the playoffs, it isn’t true anymore now that half the league does not make the playoffs. With 16 teams now, there almost certainly will be good teams that collect 40 points (the historical level of points considered safe to make the post-season) who will not make it in this year.

Obviously, with three points in seven games, DC has to collect at least 37 points over their last 23 games to even get into heartbreaking, pipped on the last weekend territory like they have been the last two years. But, to really be safe in the playoff picture, DC needs more like 42 points, so 39 more by the end of the season, something like 10 wins and 9 ties in those last 23 matches. Clearly a daunting task, but possible if DC can get on a roll over this 5 game stretch before the World Cup break in June.

DC’s next five matches are a medium tough stretch, Colorado, Chivas, and RSL at home with trips to Houston and Seattle sprinkled in, but with three of five in RFK and some of those teams likely weakened by players lost to the World Cup, it’s not that bad a lineup to find desperately needed points. Certainly, compared to the next stretch DC has to collect a ton of points in these five, because the next seven matches after that are damn near cruel. Five of seven on the road in Columbus, SJ, NY, RSL, and NE with a couple against Seattle and LA at RFK sprinkled in. Gruesome.

Further complicating matters over the next five league matches is that United also has an Open Cup match against RSL (at home thankfully) and the AC Milan friendly too, as well as a short week before that last league match on Thursday in Seattle, June 10th. All of which means DC in effect has 7 games in 27 days or about a game every four days overall. Nice.

Also, it is extremely unlikely that United will have the services of key players like Jakovic and Pontius for any of these matches, in addition to the long term losses of Namoff and Burch, as well as Quaranta and Barklage maybe only being available for a few of those matches. Plus Najar and Graye probably out for at least one of those critical matches also brings into play the loss of an end of the bench guy like Barry Rice who is out with a concussion just when he might be useful. Obviously not a good scenario for a team that desperately needs points now rather than later.

Looking at the injury available information to date (going from least severe to most severe), Najar, who rolled an ankle versus NY and hasn’t played since, is almost certainly out for Colorado this weekend and would probably only get sub minutes in Houston. Graye, who tweaked a hamstring will likely be in a similar scenario. Barklage is a bit of a mystery as he’s not even listed on the injury report, but seems to have returned from a concussion only to fall victim to some sort of a lower leg injury, but it seems likely he will probably be out for Colorado and maybe gets some minutes in Houston too.

Quaranta, who hopefully missed out on a truly bad infection but will still be out two weeks at least, will miss the Colorado and Houston matches for sure, but might be back in time for AC Milan or Chivas if his recovery and return to fitness go well. Pontius and his balky hamstring could be back by one of the RSL matches but probably only for sub minutes, and almost certainly won’t start until Seattle at the earliest. Jakovic, with his broken collarbone that will take the full two months to heal, won’t be back until after the WC break barring a miracle.

Still, at least some teams DC will be facing will be missing some key players as well. Sadly, Colorado will have Casey (and probably a ticked off Casey to boot having missed out on the WC), but Chivas will be without Kljestan and Bornstein and RSL should be without Findley.

However, moaning and groaning aside, DC has finally given reason to believe they can pull off results in this league and truth be told, the missing players weren’t that crucial to United’s success lately anyway. Quaranta and Pontius were clearly struggling, Jakovic was nowhere near as good as he was last year, and Najar and Graye, while showing real promise for the future were not being consistent enough to say they were the answer at their positions either.

No interestingly, it has been United’s mostly reserve lineups the past two weeks are the reason DC suddenly looks competent. Cristman, Boyzzz, Morsink, McTavish, Graye, Talley, and Hamid all expected to be on the bench most of the season, even Allsopp and Pena were not expected to start all the time. But those guys have shown the work ethic and determination, as well as displaying an attacking and defending understanding, that has turned the team around without those injured starters and without such icons as Moreno and Emilio.

It’s been the high pressure and quick thinking of Allsopp and Cristman, the manic determination of Morsink and smooth efficiency of Simms in the center of midfield, and the overall effort and concentration over 90 minutes in the defense, as well as the obvious desire to cover for each other along with some finger pointing accountability and back bone that has been the key to three points in the standings and another solid effort in Dallas. Now, if only Castillo and Boyzzz can get themselves on track, DC should be able to go toe to toe with any of the next five teams they face.

It won’t be easy, nor pretty most likely, but DC can absolutely grind out results against Colorado, Chivas and RSL, none of which has historically played well in RFK, and Houston without Ching and a suddenly anemic Seattle are places DC could well pull off surprises. Interestingly, Seattle’s recent 4-0 loss to LA was only the second time they had ever given up more than one goal at Quest field. The other time? DC last year in a 3-3 tie. DC had never even scored in Houston before last season, but their last time there they rocked Houston with three goals in a wild 4-3 loss.

Obviously, this is a pie in the sky column full of optimism that could be somewhat unwarranted, but it has to be said that this team has clearly turned a corner in the last two weeks. This team clearly needs a little luck to get them over their talent deficit, but aside from the KC, the only luck they’ve had is bad luck. That has got to turn around at some point as long as the soccer gods haven’t abandoned United altogether. (Now would be a good time for them to at least taunt United fans with some good results before cruelly pulling the rug out like they have the past two years, but we’ll leave that morbid thought alone for now.) Still, by no account is DC a good or even better than average team in MLS, but they at least work hard now and gives themselves legitimate chances to collect points.

The journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. If DC gets a 1 or 2 goal lead against Colorado in the first half then closes out a win, then maybe gets lucky against a creaky Houston team staying near the top on fumes, then rocks Chivas and RSL at home, incredibly pulls off some revenge in Seattle against a Sounders team that is slumping, and DC could be right back in the hunt. (Hey, it could happen!)

Still, anyway you look at it, a pile of points certainly needs to be collected over the next five games and DC will have to do it without some key players, to even give themselves a chance for even greater results down the road. Bottom line, anything less than 10-12 points in the next month and it’s a stone cold lock DC will miss the postseason for the third year in a row.

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