DC United's visit to Colorado to take on the Rapids was not televised locally. For fans with the Direct Kick package, this was not a problem. For those of us without, it meant finding a United-friendly bar or watching a low-quality feed somewhere. However, it also afforded me a unique opportunity, if I was willing to be patient. What follows is my first attempt at live blogging, though obviously "live" is entirely untrue. I had a family obligation, so I watched this one Sunday morning off my DVR.
Read on for my at-the-moment reactions (with judicious use of pause and rewind):
I'm not sure if anyone heard, but it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Apparently MLS will be making pretty much everything it can pink. When the ball is in play, you can't really tell that it's pink; it just looks like it's all white, which kind of defeats the point. I say if you're doing this for an important cause, go all out. Instead of a white ball with pink accents, reverse the colors. Paint the goalposts pink. Ask Adidas to make some pink shoes or keeper gloves. Make the referees wear pink. Go for broke. Added afterward: I watched this game and 3 NFL games on Sunday; I'm now more aware of breast cancer than I am of my own name and address.
There's Chad Ashton. I had forgotten that he has big Colorado connections (played for the Colorado Foxes and coached the University of Denver). How nice of Benny to get sent off so Ashton could get to be the head coach for this particular game. Yes, I'm willing to credit Ben Olsen with pretty much anything good in the world, even in the face of overwhelming evidence (for example, I don't rule out the possibility that he invented the internet).
DCU lines up in the 442 we had been expecting. Jordan Graye returns at right back, allowing Devon McTavish to play center back, mostly because we have 632 other center backs out injured. I predict the following three things:
1. If we're going to have any success in this game, Kurt Morsink is going to have to have his best game in DC colors. He's been playing better lately, though he still turns the ball over way too often. He seems to have learned to funnel more of his energy into actually playing, and spends less time yelling at the ref and/or trying to prove how hard he is. If he can battle Pablo Mastroeni to a draw and avoids turnovers when playing square or backwards, we have a chance.
2. Danny Allsopp is going to run out of gas by halftime. I'm expecting to see Carlos Varela sub in around the 55th minute, with Najar moving up front. I just hope that, while he is in the game, that Allsopp stays connected and applies some pressure. I get that he's just not that energetic, but in that case we should be planning on him running out of steam. If you know a guy is going to tire himself out and will definitely require a sub, you have every right to demand that he really gives you everything he has for the time he's in.
3. I feel it in my gut that Pablo Hernandez is going to have a good game. "Good game" may or may not mean "score a goal" (since it's hard to imagine us scoring more than one goal against anyone, and it's also hard to imagine anyone other than Najar scoring that goal).
Here's the Colorado lineup. There are plenty of changes here: Marvell Wynne, Anthony Wallace, Jamie Smith, and (significantly) Omar Cummings are all being rested. Scott Palguta, Danny Earls, Brian Mullan, and Macoumba Kandji will step into what is otherwise the normal Rapids 442. Call me crazy, but Gary Smith might be taking this one a little casually. While I understand most of his changes (Wynne's speed isn't needed centrally with our forwards; Mullan will probably be first choice once the playoffs come around; and Kandji is not that different from Cummings overall), the weak spot I see is Earls at left back. If I'm a coach playing DC United at this point in the year, the one position I absolutely am not taking a chance at is left back. Wallace has the speed to potentially keep up with Najar; Earls does not. This is a weak spot that United really should exploit.
Kickoff: We're in the all white uniforms, with Colorado going with their normal home maroon shirts and socks and white shorts. I was wondering if we'd see an old school United look of white shirts and socks and black shorts to avoid the conflict, but that won't be the case. Vamos!
1st minute: Rapids announcing duo explains that Cummings has an ankle knock that needs rest, and rightly points out that this is Colorado's third game in eight days. Resting the players makes sense, but there's still no way I send Earls out against Najar. You can always rest Wallace in your next game.
Morsink's first two passes are backward; he didn't even give a look forward. I shouldn't complain, though, because they both got to their intended targets. Baby steps.
4th minute: Kandji crosses low and hard for Mullan, who had started the move, but Graye does well to pick up the former Houston wide man's run. Nice move forward by the Rapids, but I'm also glad to see Graye snuff this play out. Mullan had cut far enough into the middle that his run was coming from the left-center part of the field. Considering the fact that Graye lost his spot in part for losing Landon Donovan for LA's late winner a couple weeks ago, things like this that require good awareness (and possibly good communication from other players, something that it would appear is one of our many issues) are important signs.
5th minute: A sign behind the Rapids goal says their colors are burgundy, not maroon. Who are they, the Redskins?
7th minute: This is in low def, so it took me a few minutes to tell McTavish and Jed Zayner apart. Apparently it will be Zayner at center back and McTavish on the left. Zayner is a bit faster than McTavish, so I can see why we'd make that move in preparation for facing Cummings, Kandji, or even both (that's the pairing they used last week with Casey suspended). I worry a bit (OK, a lot) about that side of our defense.
8th minute: Awaiting a Rapids corner, I notice that their mascot is apparently an eagle. I guess there isn't an animal that comes to mind in association with fast-moving rivers...except for fish, but a giant fish mascot would probably look creepy. Added later: There's also a fox. You know your team has a crappy history when you have two more mascots than you do trophies.
The corner hits a group of players at once and falls to Moor, who shoots weakly at goal. However, Morsink is on the near post and clears with ease. That could have gone much worse.
14th minute: Pablo Hernandez and Santino Quaranta just connected on perhaps the longest give-and-go in history. Seriously, they were never within 50 yards of each other. Too bad Hernandez's header goes about 20 yards over the goal, as he had to dive to get anywhere near Tino's cross.
16th minute: Palguta goes in the book for bundling into Hernandez, who used the sombrero to spin past the Colorado defender at midfield. It's things like that that give me reason to believe that Hernandez can avoid being the next Guy-Roland Kpene. That said, he will eventually have to score against someone.
20th minute: Nothing much happening at this point. The announcers have already had a 30 second discussion of the weather in recent weeks, and now they're recalling stuff from a pre-game show interview with Wynne. It might be boring, but this is definitely a small victory for United; by this point in their last home game, the Rapids were already up 2-0 on Philadelphia.
23rd minute: United switches the field to Quaranta and, for the third time, he has a ton of space. Kosuke Kimura is looking a little suspect at right back thus far. DC isn't doing anything special, but for some reason Kimura seems unsure of his positioning and is overcompensating by pinching in. If both flanks are weak points for Colorado, we might actually be able to manage two goals! I'm probably getting ahead of myself there.
Oh, and it turns out that chant from before is the English standard "Who are ya?" Ironic, since Colorado has long been MLS's most anonymous franchise and usually has the least-remarkable roster in the league.
The corner is cleared, but Zayner pumps it forward to Quaranta, who sends the ball back in over the top. Earls totally botches it, and Pickens has to acrobatically tip Hernandez's chip shot over the bar. Nice save, but I wonder if Hernandez would have been better off just trying to post up on Earls to let the ball fall lower. If he can hold Earls off there, it's a chance to blast a shot on goal from about 8 yards. If Earls challenges with the shoulder from behind, Hernandez could easily have drawn a penalty shot.
24th minute: The ensuing corner ends up being a broken play, but Najar keeps the ball in along the touchline and finds Morsink, who cuts past Kandji and draws a good save out of Pickens from the far corner of the box. The Rapids manage to scramble the rebound clear. Not bad from United.
26th minute: Zayner just barely manages to hold Kandji off as they chase a long ball. Zayner may be faster than McTavish, but we still have to avoid footraces with Kandji if at all possible.
30th minute: Field mics are picking up an inside-voice conversation from the stands. I bet local students go to Rapids games when they need a quiet place to study.
31st minute: Mullan trips the onrushing McTavish in pursuit of a loose ball, but there's no call coming. McTavish responds a couple of seconds later by shoving Mullan down from behind (just as a retaliation, or to prevent Mullan from breaking into the space down the wing? Probably a little bit of both). I have no idea how none of this goes unpunished. McTavish could have easily been booked, and it was a high enough shove that a touchy referee might have even considered a red card.
Here's the replay: Mullan gets the ball, but only after he'd tripped McTavish. That should have been a foul, but no card. McTavish's response was to grab Mullan's arm with one hand and shove him down by the face with the other. We just caught a huge break; by the letter of the law, a hand to the face like that is a red card.
36th minute: This game might get chippy. Considering the fact that the Rapids don't appear to have the desire they've shown recently, that could be a bad thing for us. The longer this game stays bland, the more likely we can keep a shutout going. If the Rapids start to take this one personally, they may elevate their play, and that would be a problem for us.
Now Jeff Larentowicz appears to catch Hernandez with an elbow to the cheek. Referee Michael Kennedy is within five yards, but makes no call. Morsink is, naturally, in Larentowicz's face. The replay shows that Larentowicz may not have even made contact with Hernandez's face and was not making any attempt to throw an elbow. However, as he stumbled backward, Larentowicz did put his studs on Hernandez's calf. This is all entirely accidental, but it adds to the building animosity between the teams.
42nd minute: Rapids fans want a penalty kick for Zayner's tackle on Mullan, but it's very obviously a clean challenge. Come on Colorado, you're reaching there.
Moments later, Mullan cuts in and shoots left-footed from outside the box. Perkins makes the easy save. I believe that's the first time Perkins has actually had to make a stop; other than grabbing a couple of high balls and watching Morsink clear Moor's early shot, he's been a spectator.
45th minute: Mullan's backpass is poor, but Moor makes it worse by hesitating, allowing Allsopp to touch it past him and create a breakaway. Allsopp opens his hips to allow the possibility of going to the far post, but Pickens doesn't bite and paws the ball away as the Aussie tries to dribble around him. You've got to be kidding me.
It is precisely this kind of wasted chance that will surely result in Allsopp being offered a senior minimum deal for next season, assuming we don't just find some A-League team to buy his rights. If you wear the number 9, that's a chance you finish.
If United follows the season script, Colorado will score before halftime.
Maybe our luck is changing. Mullan redeems himself immediately by sending in a fine cross for Wells Thompson at the back post. The former Rev is unmarked, but he misses the ball entirely. Both teams have now blown one sitter after spending 44 minutes creating virtually nothing. On a side note, when Thompson tithes to Ben Olsen, does that include his per diem from road trips? What about his wife's earnings?
46th+ minute: UNITED GOAL! Allsopp had owed the team a goal, and he pays his debt in under a minute. Quaranta started the play with crossfield ball that lured Earls in. The Irish left back missed his header, allowing Najar to take possession. The Little Warrior used a couple of feints to keep Earls from diving in before firing a low cross into the six yard box. Pickens managed to get a hand to the ball, but the rebound goes straight to Allsopp, who simply had to set his feet before finishing with ease. Cue the most subdued goal celebration in United history (seriously, Allsopp still looks slightly embarrassed about his earlier miss, Najar looks upset or confused about something that happened downfield, and only Morsink seems happy...or at least, happy in the angry sort of way that he has). It's almost like we've scored a goal but are down 4-1. I guess within the context of the season there's no reason to celebrate anything, but still...fellas, we're 1-0 up at Colorado with a lineup that you'd be surprised to see us choose for an early-round Open Cup game. Get excited!
Halftime: United has flipped the script moments before the break. How many times have we been guilty of a shocking miss that is immediately followed up by a goal by our opponents this year? For once, we're the team scoring the gut-punch goal. Not only did it come just seconds after the Rapids missed their best chance thus far, but it's also virtually the last kick of the first half.
In terms of individual performances, I'd say Hernandez, Morsink, and Zayner have been our best players. Hernandez has caused lots of trouble dropping off the front line, and Morsink has kept the turnovers to a bare minimum while winning plenty of tackles. Najar did well enough when he was involved, but that was not often enough. If we can feed him the ball more, this becomes a game in which we can score another goal or two.
As a team, United is playing decently enough. Sure, Colorado is mixing in plenty of second-choice players, and they're clearly overlooking us in terms of intensity, but beggars can't be choosers. DC edged a largely uneventful first half in virtually every category. We've created more chances, we've had more meaningful possession, we're in charge of where the game is being played in terms of territory, and we are dictating the pace and style of play. Our possession play has been effective enough that we've expended less energy than the Rapids, and (perhaps most importantly) the game is psychologically going in our favor. It's hardly our best effort, but you've got to beat who they put in front of you. Colorado is playing their worst game in a long time, and thus far we've done a decent job of making them pay.
Gary Smith calls his side "leggy" and calls for "an injection of creativity and quality." That pretty much sums it up.
46th minute: Both teams are unchanged, and we're underway.
47th minute: Perkins comes up with a huge save on Mastroeni's wide open, point blank header. Mullan had come down the right and crossed near post for Mastroeni, who spent a long time being completely unmarked before the ball came to him. Zayner appeared to step out to cover Thompson, and no one from United's midfield did anything about picking up Mastroeni. What's equally troubling is that no United defender appeared to be calling for someone to track back and mark, nor was there an attempt to shift over to avert the danger. We aren't going to get away with this kind of thing.
Mastroeni leads the claims for a handball on Zayner in the aftermath, but it looks like the ball hit Zayner's shin (with his hand nearby).
49th minute: After Kennedy ignores clear fouls by both teams, Perkins has to grab a cross just before Kandji can get a head to it. Colorado has upped the tempo, though they're still slightly imprecise with their passing and first touch. Nonetheless, the first 3+ minutes of the second half have seen the DC goal under some pressure.
52nd minute: United dodges another bullet. Kimura, who is coming forward constantly now after spending the first half playing very conservatively, hits a cross from the right that an open Casey volleys just wide. Morsink remonstrates with Dejan Jakovic for not tracking Casey, who had backpedaled to create space for himself at the last moment. DC can't let the game go on like this if they want to keep this lead. At the moment, the Rapids are showing urgency and initiative, while United appears to be taking an extended halftime break.
56th minute: Announcer chatter brings up the old NPSL, which leads to the following, totally awesome exchange:
PBP guy: Usually, if 'Celo (Marcelo Balboa)'s here, he'd look at me, "Don't talk about the indoor game," or something to that effect.
Color guy: 'Celo's not here.
Right you are, good sir, and we're all glad for it.
57th minute: Hernandez forces Colorado to concede a corner, which reveals a third Rapids mascot (some kind of raccoon). Maybe one of the reasons the Rapids never get good support is that they're still ignoring young adults for the youth demographic? Just thinking out loud here.
In more relevant news, the Rapids seem to have run out of steam again. I would expect to see Jamie Smith and/or Claudio Lopez sub in for one or both wide midfielders pretty soon. Mullan has worked hard and might not yet be acclimated to playing at altitude, and Thompson has been totally ineffective.
59th minute: As if on cue, Smith and Cummings ditch their warm-ups and are waiting by the fourth official to enter the game. United is also preparing to send in Varela. This is going to be a tough last half hour.
60th minute: The newest Rapids, Mullan and Kandji, come off for Smith and Cummings. Both subs are like-for-like, though I wouldn't be surprised to see Smith switch wings with Thompson at some point. Varela comes in for Allsopp, just as pretty much everyone that watches this team thought he would. However, the position shuffle sees Najar go to the left wing (most likely to help keep Kimura honest, and also to have someone on that wing that can match his speed) and Quaranta move forward.
61st minute: Cummings provides instant danger, dribbling free of a trio of United defenders before firing straight at Perkins. It looks like Cummings is brimming with confidence; that's no surprise, as he just won the MLS Player of the Month award for September.
65th minute: United once again lets Mastroeni attack a huge defensive gap without anyone in the midfield tracking him. Fortunately, Jakovic blocks an attempt by Cummings to slot the Colorado captain through. This time, it was Varela and Morsink; both players were within arm's reach of Mastroeni, but neither one followed him once he attacked the space. On another night, against a sharper opponent, this would be a real issue for us.
70th minute: Colorado appears to have run out of ideas that aren't either a) "Give it to Cummings and wait for him to do everything by himself" or b) "High cross into the box." Unsurprisingly, Lopez is loosening up by the fourth official. Does Smith have the cojones to try a 343?
71st minute: No, he does not. El Piojo comes in for Thompson on the left wing, though he'll have near-total freedom to wander.
74th minute: McTavish gets a deserved yellow card for pulling Smith back to prevent a Rapids counter. Cynical play, but it had to be done. This may be the first time McTavish has entered the Colorado half of the field during the second half. It's worth mentioning that Zayner, Morsink, and Najar will all be suspended with their next yellow card. By contrast, this is McTavish's first booking of the season.
76th minute: If this result holds up, United will have won at Seattle, at Toronto, and at Colorado. If you told me at the beginning of the season that we'd have won those away games, I'd have expected one of our best-ever seasons. Other than playing at Real Salt Lake, those are the three toughest places for away teams to win (Colorado entirely because of the altitude). How can we be so bad and win those games? My JV soccer coach in my freshman year of high school knew next to nothing about soccer, but he repeatedly hit the bulls-eye with his favorite saying: "Soccer is a crazy game."
79th minute: A round of head tennis eventually sees a Perkins goal kick fall to Varela. A quick series of one- and two-touch passing ends with Morsink playing Tino in over the top. The ball sits up nicely for Quaranta, who hits a first-time cutback for the onrushing Hernandez...who scuffs his shot so badly that the ball goes out for a throw in. I really hope we win a penalty kick sometime soon, because it looks like Hernandez needs an easy goal to break the ice.
84th minute: It's starting to look like the Rapids are just giving up. There's no energy, no ideas, no urgency. Even the simplest of things, like trapping or completing simple passes under no pressure, are going wrong for them. Naturally, this means they've got us right where they want us. In the meantime, Boskovic just hit a rocket about 3 yards wide from all of 35 yards. Nice to see him shooting with that kind of power, even if the shot was never going in.
85th minute: Kennedy books someone for United for time-wasting over a throw in. The camera doesn't show who, and when they finally cut to the throw in itself, McTavish has the ball. He hasn't been sent off, so confusion reigns. After DC loses the ball on the throw, Lopez supplies Smith down the right wing. Smith fires in a cross that just barely eludes a diving Cummings.
The stadium announcer says Najar is booked; if that's true, he'll miss our next game. On one hand, it'll be a good chance for Varela or Junior to get some real minutes. On the other hand, how in the world are we going to score a goal without Najar on the field?
87th minute: The Rapids have struggled all game long to create chances, but when they have broken through, they've missed sitters. This might be the most glaring of all, as Casey glances Lopez's corner to the back post. Moor is there, completely unmarked, with no one from United on the back post and Perkins with an awful lot of goal to cover if he's going to make a save. Somehow, with all signs pointing to a sure Rapids goal, Moor directs the ball wide of the far post. Shocking miss, even for a center back.
Guys, seriously. Moor is their second best threat on corner kicks after Casey. He's unmarked when the ball comes to him, but even more upsetting is the fact that he was unmarked for the entire corner kick. You want to know why we only have 18 points? This kind of stuff is why. 99 times out of 100, that's a goal.
In any other season, I'd say a miss like that is a sure sign that there's simply no way we give up a goal. However, this season has been extraordinarily cruel, so I'm fully expecting a tragicomic own goal, or maybe a Pickens clearance bouncing in, any time now.
89th minute: Wouldn't it be reasonable for us to bring in Clyde Simms or Stephen King? Hernandez has been dead on his feet for the last 15 minutes, and between the benefits of clogging the midfield and injecting some energy into the team, I'd say a sub is long overdue. I'd even go one further and advocate adding a defender and going 541 at this point, but we don't have any healthy defenders on the bench.
Just after I type this, Junior gets his player card.
90th minute: Hernandez comes off for Junior. Good effort from Hernandez. Once again, he did most things very well, created chances for others, moved well, added some flair, but his finishing was simply not there. If Hernandez ever finds his shooting boots, we'll have one hell of a forward on our hands. That's a big if, though.
Hernandez takes forever to get off the field. Quaranta shows some real intelligence here in gently pushing him off the field; that kind of thing can save a player from a booking. Kennedy has been impatient with Hernandez for the entire 2nd half. It's a tiny detail, but it's that kind of attention to detail that you look for in your captain.
Junior looks like he'll slot in up front, probably to apply pressure in an effort to force Colorado's defenders to hurry the inevitable barrage of long balls. Meanwhile, Varela wanders about 20 yards forward before throwing the ball in, much to the chagrin of the Rapids bench. I haven't seen a United player pull a stunt like that since Marco Etcheverry was around.
92nd+ minute: Smith lobs the ball into the box for Larentowicz, but his volley attempt hits Lopez and DC clears. Our clearances have become thoroughly prosaic, and that's perfectly fine. If soccer is at all cinematic, United's defending at the moment is about as complicated as a Michael Bay movie.
94th+ minute: Are we seriously about to win this game? Did someone slip me a mickey? This has to be a hallucination.
Full time: United wins 1-0! This was miles removed from pretty soccer from either team, but United managed the one good piece of skill in either penalty area all game long to take the three points. Colorado simply lacked the energy to implement their direct, high-speed style of play, and the result was possibly the worst performance from them that I've seen all season. For United, a decent first half got us the lead, and we did well enough defensively to keep the Rapids to only a handful of second half chances. True, they were all really great chances that should have been buried, but the longest spell of sustained pressure from Colorado was in the first seven or eight minutes of the 2nd half.
Give credit to Morsink and Boskovic for being disruptive in central midfield all game long, and to United's back four for exceeding any and all expectations. In fact, you can't really find anyone for DC that had a below-par performance. Allsopp would have been a candidate for that, but his goal overshadows a lethargic performance and that missed 1v1 (such is life for a striker; with goals you're a hero, without them you're useless).
On a scale of 1-10, United was virtually all in the 5.5-6 range. Normally that's just good enough to barely lose, but we caught Colorado at the right moment. The way this season has gone, you have to look at the positives (we won, we got a shut out, we broke a long winless streak at a particular road venue) and build on them rather than dwell on the excuses from the other side. United's young players should take heart from this result, because on the balance of play they probably earned it.
Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go to my doctor and get some blood work done. I'm still not convinced that this whole game wasn't the result of being surreptitiously drugged, a la Frank and Charlie's acid trip from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.