Since I am wildly, and unfairly I might add, considered too pessimistic and cruel when analyzing DC United, I figured this week I would take a stab at looking on the bright side of life as it were. Taking my cue directly from Onalfo who wants to ignore the negatives and focus on the positives, I’m going to take the plunge into blissful positive thinking. Granted, angst and sarcastic morbidity are often my natural inclinations after the painful reality of another loss sinks in, but that doesn’t mean I can’t actually see signs of life in this currently stinking corpse. Go back over the years in the site’s archives, you’ll see.
Seemingly all the quotes coming out of the United communication bunker this week have been noticeably and emphatically positive, realistic and admitting mistakes too, but positive overall which is certainly something new for DC fans used to combative coaches who lashed out regularly after painful losses. Onalfo certainly took the high road. “As far as I’m concerned there are a lot of good things to build on and that’s what I’m going to focus on… I’m just going to make sure our group stays positive and that we learn from these issues we had today.” he summed up the situation after the game.
But, most of the other quotes were all along the same lines: “Growing pains”, “We’ll continue to progress”, “focus on the positives”, etc. etc. You can see them all on DC’s site or MLSsoocer if you wish, but that’s the gist of them. Which is pretty interesting considering the contrasting opinions being voiced a lot more vociferously by an increasingly anxious fanbase that is used to a lot more success, or failing that, a lot more volume and incriminations after losing two games by a combined 6-0.
So, what exactly are these positives? How can there be anything positive about losing the first two games of the season, including your home opener in front of a spectacular crowd on a beautiful evening, who showed remarkable support despite their first game day experience of the season being either a third world parking lot, or alternatively being forced to park in the hinterlands far away from their usual soccer family and friends that they hadn’t seen all winter. (But, that’s a gripe for another day. A day that will be ushered in by a screed of epic proportions if the lot 8 fiasco isn’t fixed by the Chicago game. You’ve been warned DC!)
Anyway, first of all positives, DC United did get a bit unlucky against NE, outworked and maybe deservedly losers, but unlucky nonetheless. I’m telling you right now, if Burpo’s big toe doesn’t magically extend like an elf boot to stop Tino’s FK, DC wins that game pure and simple. And anyone who thinks the NE game plan hinged on Mansally coming off the bench and scoring twice, including a wicked curler he could not hit again if his life depended on it, then you are dreaming too.
It is enormously positive that DC put on a very good display of soccer and rightfully dominated the game, thoroughly outclassing NE for most of the night. Granted NE was missing key players, but if Nicol gets credit when he wins with those stiffs, then DC gets credit where credit is due when they play against Buffalo Head’s bunkerball.
DC wasted their chances to be sure, but they created them with a stunning improvement in the midfield from that hideous display in KC merely a week ago. Castillo showed a lot of spark on that left side and was dangerous most of the night until Nicol put out a contract on him and he had to come off with a sore knee. Barklage was less ostentatious, but equally effective on the right, until he too succumbed to cramps, likely from too many nervous leaps to avoid scything sweeps at his ankles. Santino also showed he can pull the strings quite nicely in midfield while helping defend adequately alongside the shockingly effective Morsinck, who pulled a very solid game seemingly out of thin air.
Even better, the defense was miles better than the swiss cheese in KC. Pena really does make Jakovic better, no question about it. As the leader of the defense, Jakovic can be too casual and get caught doing too much thinking instead of closing down quickly or passing out of trouble quickly, but with Pena in his ear, he is decisive and rock solid. Plus, Pena simply stayed in the right place at the right times and made almost everything he did look easy, even a panicked flailing kick out of bounds after a dismal back pass too him was smooth as oil. And the Mummy’s vision out of the back is something DC hasn’t seen since the Admiral patrolled those waters. True, Wallace and James (and Talley before him to be fair) were a bit sketchy and perhaps most culpable on those two back breaking goals, but those were also two outstanding goals. Credit to Mansally.
However, the fact remains that DC did not score despite hours of possession, and did give up two goals despite hours of good defending. So, despite all the positives, there were also some very specific and hard lessons that have to have been learned right away or wins will be light years down the road.
On the offensive side of the ball, I think Tino had a very telling quote after the match. “First of all, I don’t think we got enough shots off,” Santino Quaranta said after the New England loss. “I don’t think we got enough service – when we did get service tonight I think we were successful. When Brandon [Barklage] and those guys got some crosses in, I felt we were successful. I think we were trying to walk it in a little bit instead of taking more risks and taking more chances. I don’t think we were sharp enough in the attacking third.”
Obviously, taking more shots and better finishing is one huge point, but I think the other elephant in this quote is a veiled reference, maybe even unconsciously, about Jaime Moreno slowing down the play unnecessarily. United had a number of breaks and odd man rushes, but often wasted them with deliberate play instead of attacking dead at goal and making the defense react. Jaime was clearly the biggest offender and I would swear there was a whistle or two from him that slowed up other plays. DC is not good enough to work the ball into the net, they need to strike quick before defenses settle in and frustrate them.
Now, Jaime is flat out the best player MLS has ever had given his incredibly effective long career, but he is obviously a detriment at times too. The question is does Onalfo have the guts to sit him down or not. It seems clear Jaime cannot go 90 two games in a row, because if he could, this would have been the time given the boost of a home opener and his freshness being so early in the season. But he looked slow and certainly didn’t influence the game in a good way.
Then again, he really can’t be platooned by playing every other game, for example, as he changes DC’s style so much when he’s out there. He can be and still is a deadly player, but he cannot be the first choice starting forward anymore if he’s going to slow plays down constantly. This team is built for speedy play and hard work, neither of which is his strong suit anymore. Time to go with the future, unless he’s willing to play at warp speed at every half chance break out.
But, speaking of the future, it also seems obvious Pontius’ career arc is trending more towards Chad Barrett than Edson Buddle right now, which is obviously not a good thing. But Pontius also needs to be starting and getting experience, just not alongside Moreno apparently. Since Jaime refuses to get deep in the box much anymore, it makes Pontius the primary mark of every defense. So take the primary scoring load off Pontius by playing him with Allsopp, who is used to that type of pressure, which is presumably the reason he was brought in here for Pete’s sake, and let the Aussie sink or swim. I suspect he will swim as his lunch pail style seems to fit what the team is built to produce, and it lets Pontius come in under the radar which might suit him better too. It did last year, and I think it’s a far better bet to bring him along slowly than to keep ratcheting up the pressure on him ever more as his misses increase. Start those two all the time, and whichever stumbles game by game then bring in Moreno to spark something different in the second half of games.
One final lesson that has to be learned is how hard you have work and concentrate in this league. Talley hit the nail right on the head with this little gem after the last game, too.
“We’ve got guys that can play soccer, we definitely do, and you can see that – we move the ball around,” noted veteran defender Carey Talley after the 2-0 loss to the Revolution. “We play a good style of soccer, there’s no doubt about it. But in the end, we’ve got to make it ugly when we’re defending, or when we’re working. We’ve got to be able to defend for long stretches of time, together as a unit instead of maybe just defending the back six.”
“The young guys are out there to be brought along,” he continued. “I think more than anything, we’ve got to talk to players about not being so casual, whether it’s on the ball or closing a guy down. You can’t be casual in this league, ever, and I think we’re learning the hard way right now. I’m still new to this team. I’m not new to the club, and I know what this tradition’s all about and what’s demanded of us. And I think that we should demand a lot more of ourselves.” Hopefully he means his own atrocious passing as much as he was subtly calling out James and Wallace for bad mistakes on those goals.
Nicol knows the importance of guys being wired so tight they never take a play off, which is why his no talent sides have consistently won games in this physical league for years up to and including stealing that game in RFK. Onalfo has to show he can wind players up to that level of intensity too, and then maybe DC is the one stealing points since they clearly will not simply out-talent anyone in this league. And he better show he can do that soon because Nowak knows how to get players to that level too, so if DC gets out worked in Philly, this season could really be in the crapper barely a month in.
Onalfo left us all with a bit more philosophy at the end too. “Sometimes in life, some things don’t come easy and it’s certainly not coming easy for us right now,” he said after the game. “I believe in this group and we’re going to continue to get better. We have a lot of young players that have got to continue to improve and we have to just make sure that we continue our path forward. And we will.”
I believe DC will continue to get better too. Let’s hope it’s soon and starts with a win in Philly, because next Saturday night I hope Onalfo is able, at the very minimum, to say something like Nicol’s final quote of the night about stealing the win in RFK. “It’s huge. I mean the one thing we (NE) lack is experience. Winning games when they’re putting everything out there helps confidence and it just keeps you in it and keeps you going. Hopefully we keep learning and keep getting better and better. I think we can get a little better that’s for sure, but if we can keep winning while we’re learning then that’s even better. We’re getting points on the board. We’d love to do it the Barcelona way, but we’ll take them however we can.”
DC needs to take that attitude to heart right now. The Beautiful Game can wait as obviously United is nowhere near that yet. They need some scrappy points if that’s what it takes right now. I like this new emphasis on positives, and I’m more than willing to drink the cool aid, but the longer DC remains pointless, the less likely staying positive is going to work, so by all means learn and grow and sing kumbaya, whatever. But come Saturday, do whatever else it takes to win games too, or all the positives in the world are worthless.