The return of Dejan Jakovic was a major boost to United's back four.
A few weeks ago, if you told me that DC United would get a draw against a Real Salt Lake team on a five game winning streak, I'd have had two reactions. First, I'd be quite happy, because a few weeks ago it looked like we'd have trouble beating your average PDL team. My second reaction, though, would have been to wonder what went wrong for RSL. I would have imagined that there had to be a red card for them, or maybe they had one of those rare games where the ball just wouldn't go in. In any case, I would have fully expected some bizarre circumstance allowed us such a result, since RSL is one of the three teams that are clearly better than the rest of the league (along with LA and Columbus).
We've come a long way in that short time, since United was the better team for the majority of the game and probably deserved a 1-0 win for their efforts. The combination of outplaying a top MLS team and managing a shut out (a shut out so thorough that RSL didn't get a shot on goal until the 93rd minute, and even that shot was from long range) is a huge positive sign, even if we once again failed to win a home game. Considering where we were at this time last month, I think we can all see this game as a positive step, though obviously we still have a ways to go before this United side is where we all want it to be.
Beyond the jump, I'll get into what I think worked, what didn't, and where this game leaves us heading into Thursday's grudge match against the reviled Seattle Sounders.
Defensively, Curt Onalfo sprung a couple surprises on us. Troy Perkins, who had been improving incrementally in his past few appearances, reclaimed his spot on top of the United goalkeeping depth chart. I had been wondering if this was the game to try it, since Hamid gave up a soft goal against Chivas USA, but I was still not sure what Onalfo would do. Perkins didn't have a brilliant game, but that was because he didn't have to. Other than a corner that he came for and missed (luckily for us, the ball flew past everyone on both sides), Perkins was solid at claiming any crosses, played his part in organizing our best defensive showing of the season, and his one save was quite nice. Hopefully, Perkins will continue to move in the right direction and prove the club's decision to trade so much away for him to be wise.
The other surprise was that Dejan Jakovic returned to the starting lineup. I had figured we'd see Julius James get the start in place of the injured Carey Talley. It's not that I prefer James over Jakovic, who is clearly our best defender. It was that Jakovic only recently moved from "Out" to "Questionable" on our injury report, so I was wondering about his actual match fitness. A broken clavicle isn't an injury you can just tape up, so I was more or less resigned to having to wait for Jakovic to be training for a return after the World Cup break.
Lucky for us, that wasn't the case. Jakovic's return was a big positive development, giving United some sorely needed athleticism in central defense. There was a visible boost in confidence from our other defenders and in central midfield, because they knew Jakovic had the athleticism to cope with going against Alvaro Saborio 1v1. Everyone on the field knew that they didn't need to worry that something simple like an imprecise through ball would become a potential disaster, so they could focus on their other duties. The pairing of Juan Manuel Pena and Carey Talley was too easy for teams to figure out (case in point: Chivas, despite having a terrible game in the midfield, got two goals by beating our center backs with speed). Jakovic played extremely well for someone returning from an injury layoff, and if he can turn this into his baseline performance, we're in for better days.
Elsewhere, Onalfo selected the obvious choices in midfield and up top. Unfortunately, this is where things became a bit more uneven. While I must compliment the defensive work we did from front to back, I think we could have easily taken a stranglehold on this game. RSL looked like a shadow of their normal selves due to having to use several players who went the full 120 minutes in Wednesday's Open Cup game and, at least from my view, due to being less familiar with the ridiculous 70+% humidity that hung in the air on Saturday. Missing Kyle Beckerman, RSL's midfield lacked their normal rhythm on the ball, and both Collen Warner and Will Johnson played their flank roles very conservatively once it became apparent that we'd be starting the game at top speed. We should have been able to take advantage of these circumstances to extend our high-speed opening spell for a longer period, but our visitors did just enough to keep the game from being played at the pace we'd have liked. It was still faster than they'd have preferred, but it wasn't quite what we wanted.
Getting back to Johnson for a second, I think he was a big factor in helping Tony Beltran cope with Andy Najar. Once Najar froze Beltran up on the early move forward that ended with Jordan Graye's cross nearly becoming a Nat Borchers own goal, Johnson's primary activity on the field became helping double Najar every time the ball came to our right flank. Najar still showed his zeal for isolating Beltran (a player that, left exposed, would be in for a very long night against our budding star), but Johnson was often in place to either nick the ball away or force Najar into a sideways/backwards pass. This did mean that Johnson was unable to do much going forward, but it still took one of our three main creative threats out of the game. Fortunately for us, Johnson is possibly the best left midfielder in MLS when it comes to defending both via work rate and taking up smart positions. Najar will find less demanding foes in most of our games this year.
I was quite pleased with Stephen King, even if he did waste our two best chances. In his first few games in a United shirt, King was simply attempting to find his feet. His main focus was on getting the small details right, including a focus on proper spacing, connecting all his simple passes without being overly casual (hopefully Kurt Morsink learned some lessons from King on how to do that), and being an available outlet to anyone on the ball. Saturday night, we saw that King has become more comfortable via his repeated late runs into the box. This is an absolutely crucial development for us offensively, because now we can unsettle teams by getting that extra man forward. Previously, everyone knew that Morsink would stay deep and that Clyde Simms was unfamiliar with making the kind of runs that unsettle defenses. That meant that, if you could keep our wide players from cutting in, you were pretty much certain of conceding very few chances. King showed that he can make the kind of run that most MLS defenses don't see coming until too late.
Frankly, King's approach against RSL reminded me of something like a poor man's Stuart Holden. Holden never functioned as Houston's playmaker; rather, Houston would succeed without one player setting the pace for their play. Holden's job was to be the attacking midfielder, a guy who would create as many chances for others via his runs off the ball as he would via passes. Holden became a goal threat more than an assist threat for the Dynamo, and I can see King growing into the same kind of role (lower level, but still more than serviceable) the more games he gets. I should also mention that he played 210 minutes for us in our doubleheader, so the fact that he could be so dynamic Saturday is all the more laudable. I also know from his time for the Maryland Terrapins that he's normally a better finisher than what we saw Saturday. Rest assured, on most nights he puts one of those chances in the back of the net.
Up top, I thought Quaranta did alright in his roaming role, but I'd like to see him create more shooting chances for himself. I suppose you can credit the RSL defense for limiting him to being simply part of the unit rather than having a standout game. I also felt that Tino was not helped much by Danny Allsopp, who seemed bizarrely short of energy from about the 30th minute onward. Perhaps he took a kick from Jamison Olave or Nat Borchers, or maybe he came in carrying a slight injury or illness. Otherwise, it's hard to explain how a guy that has previously looked to be of average MLS fitness would suddenly run out of gas so early in a game. On rewatching the game on DVR, I was in total agreement with Thomas Rongen about how we needed harder runs up top. The crosses were coming in often enough to cause danger, but they still needed a little help from the guys running onto them.
This is a spot where I think Onalfo could have done a little bit better. Allsopp had maybe 5 minutes of decent running in him after halftime, so a sub should have come much earlier than the 81st minute. That said, I was glad that Onalfo chose Adam Cristman over Luciano Emilio. On a night like this, where everyone had heavy legs from the humidity and the midweek game, your subs have to inject energy and life into a match. Cristman may not have Emilio's nose for goal, nor is he as skillful a finisher, but he works much harder and always makes his presence known. Given the flagging energy on both sides (especially in Olave, who was pretty much done around the same time Allsopp was), Onalfo had to opt for Cristman's more blue-collar approach rather than Emilio, who has never been known for energetic displays. The issue was that it took about 20-25 minutes too long to get Cristman into the game.
All in all, it was a shame that we couldn't find three points on a night that we outplayed our opponent. However, you've got to tip your hat to RSL, who found a way to gut out a draw on the road despite missing a key player and having numerous players play two full games in our local heat and humidity. Considering this has been a pretty miserable season thus far, I'm going to focus on the positives here. We got a shutout against MLS's best offense, put in a full 90 minute performance, and both Jakovic and Perkins have returned well from injury and poor form, respectively. If we can play like this for the rest of the season, we're all the sudden a pretty decent team. Here's hoping the World Cup break doesn't throw us out of our current stride.