DC United's 3-2 win over AC Milan, regardless of Milan's admitted disinterest, was a surprising result for a DC side that entered the game low in confidence and with many players on the mend. MLS sides usually do well against visiting European and South American clubs, which mostly stems from catching them either when our guests are in preseason or are spending more time booking a hotel suite in Dubai than they are at training. 2010 has been no different, with New York topping Juventus and Boca Juniors falling in both Los Angeles and Seattle in the past few days. Still, those are all teams that are not having nightmarish seasons (our friends in Seattle may beg to differ, but there's a big difference between disappointing and 1-8). United's win may or may not have been the most impressive of the lot, but it certainly the most unlikely.
So who impressed? Did we learn anything from a mere money-making exhibition? Most importantly, how can DC turn a feel-good moment into something more? Read on:
First off, there are a few things that have to be said to make it clear why we could beat a team of millionaire players yet lose to, say, the forever mediocre Colorado Rapids. As anyone could tell, the Milan players were only engaged in attempting the sublime; mundane passing movements or runs were passed up, no matter how useful they were. Until the score was 2-0, the only player in a Milan shirt that was running hard was Brocchi (who, last I checked, was with Lazio...whatever). This lack of physical pressure meant that DC's first half starters were given more time on the ball than usual. Milan wasn't really interested in hassling anyone or closing space, so time that our players don't get in MLS was available. Moreover, when the pressure did come, it was halfhearted. Compare that to the inelegant hustle and bustle of your regular MLS league match, and it quickly becomes clear just how important this pressure and coverage of space is. Without it, even MLS's worst team can compete against a team of players that, Terzi aside, could walk into virtually any top-flight club on the planet.
Still, it was nice to see United do something with this gift. After an opening 10 minutes (including a superb save from Bill Hamid in the first minute) in which the Black-and-Red simply didn't believe they had any hope against the Rossoneri, we started to realize that, with any real focus, we could avoid letting the game turn into an offense vs. defense drill. Once our new-look midfield started to show a little more courage on the ball, we started to put Milan's back four under pressure. Given the lack of help the Milan midfield was offering (Flamini and Jankulovski were particularly guilty), it was only a matter of time before we started to create real scoring chances.
Much of the talk on the first goal has been focused on the quality run and header across goal from Chris Pontius and Luciano Emilio's display of classic Lucigol poaching. However, I think a lot of credit needs to be given to Stephen King. King's long ball was right on the mark, but just as important was what happened before that. Milan's clearance of the initial corner came to King, who found himself facing the sideline. He played a crisp ball to Jordan Graye and shifted his body to face the Milan goal before receiving the return pass. This was all done with precision and at an appropriate speed, which allowed King to serve the ball back in before Milan could step too far out of their box. The reason I highlight this is that Kurt Morsink has been not doing these very same things all season. Morsink is far too casual when he has a simple pass to make, and that leads to slow, sloppy, or stupid plays. I highly doubt Morsink makes the initial pass to Graye; instead, I would have expected Morsink to take an imperfect first touch, shuffle around the ball to line up the pass, and hit it too late to allow Pontius time to stay onside while also getting to the pass.
This serves to illustrate a bigger point. The midfield we sent out for the first half of this game possessed technical skill and good awareness to go with positive attacking endeavor. Our midfield in the past few games, with Boyzzz Khumalo and Cristian Castillo on the wings, would love to attack. The problem is that Khumalo generally doesn't think far enough ahead before making his run or pass, while Castillo is often thinking too slowly to avoid defensive pressure. Pontius and Andy Najar, on the other hand, are smart enough to do more both on and off the ball. Pair that with the presence of King, who may lack Morsink's zeal for tackling but is, on this evidence at least, much more focused on doing his job simply and getting the little details right, and you have a vastly improved midfield.
Is it a midfield that will scare RSL or LA? Well, no, but it's also a lot better than the USL-2 quality midfield we've been sending out of late (Clyde Simms excepted). I don't want to draw too many conclusions from a friendly, but when I see us with just four goals, clearly something is wrong. We barely create more than two or three chances a game, which in turn allows opposing defenses to be more cavalier, which leads to a more compressed midfield, and before you know it you have a vicious cycle of us getting beaten by anyone that can put together eleven guys in matching shirts. The biggest thing United can do to improve its lot is to become better with the ball in midfield, and that should clearly mean dropping Morsink for King (or Najar), letting Pontius stay at left midfield, and playing either Najar or Santino Quaranta on the right. Not only will we create more chances and back teams off going forward, but by maintaining possession we can keep our shaky back line from being exposed.
Elsewhere, I liked Graye's performance as both a right back and a left back. I thought the most telling thing about his play was that, in both halves, Milan tended to go down whatever flank Graye wasn't guarding. Most opinions I've read would have you believe that Pato tore Rodney Wallace to shreds; I don't think it was anywhere near that bad, but Wallace did struggle with the young Brazilian star in the first half (though, it must be said, Pato seemed fairly unhappy dealing with Wallace's aggression). Similarly, after halftime, Pato switched to the left to trouble Devon McTavish. Even when Mancini came on and initially lined up on the Milan right, he eventually created his best moments once he swapped wings. Graye did well enough on the left that Wallace should be rather concerned; if Bryan Namoff regains his fitness, or if McTavish steps his play up, Curt Onalfo would have to think long and hard about using Graye on the left to shore up what has been a weak spot all season.
On the basis of this display, and looking back over our past games, I think I know the team I'd like to see Onalfo send out against Chivas USA tonight:
The difference between playing Najar up top and Quaranta in midfield is pretty small. In either case, we need a presence up front that offers more of a contrast to Danny Allsopp than we've been getting with Adam Cristman (who, in any case, has been battling a cold all week. It may be harsh on Emilio after he scored a typical Emilio goal to send him back to the bench, but this is not a team that has the luxury of carrying any passengers. Emilio's fitness is still short, and his hold-up play is as poor as it ever was. Emilio's good at certain things, but at this point we need Allsopp's fitness, work rate, and ability to hold the ball long enough for us to actually attack with numbers. It's also worth noting that, with Pontius and Quaranta coming back from injury, we can't afford to start a player that will definitely not be able to go for 90 minutes. Emilio has been getting better, and has earned a spot in the 18 man gameday squad, but starting him over Allsopp or Quaranta/Najar at this point would be borderline inexcusable in my opinion.
To close up, United can take a few things from this game. I spent most of this post on the benefit of having a midfield with more attacking class, so I'll move past that. Another major points DC can build on here is the obvious confidence boost that comes from a) beating one of the world's biggest clubs, b) taking a 3-0 lead against said club, and c) seeing the game out after going down to 10 men and facing both a surging Milan and a somewhat harsh penalty kick given against Morsink. This team needed a shot in the arm, and if your confidence in yourself and your teammates doesn't go up after beating AC Milan, then it just isn't going up ever.
Finally, I was encouraged to hear Onalfo touch on a point that I was hoping he would. The intensity, focus, and care that we put into this game can't be considered "good enough." They were decent baselines, but we'll have to improve from this point to get the results we need to even think about a miracle push for a playoff spot and/or another Open Cup run. This was fun, but we need to push on and get better. Chivas USA may not have a single player that Milan would want to sign, but they're going to work much harder, pressure much more quickly, and they won't spend the whole game trying to work magic instead of taking whatever path to goal is most likely to work. Ronaldinho spent the whole game trying to create his bicycle kick or some other glorious memory for us to tell our kids about, but you can bet that guys like Justin Braun and Jesus Padilla don't care about all that; if we give them something simple and ugly, they'll take it with glee.