Going into the World Cup break, DC United seemed to be on the right path. Across all competitions, United had gone six matches without a loss, including five wins. Sure, progress was still rather slow and two of these games were friendlies, but Curt Onalfo's squad was undeniably doing better than they had been. In that stretch of games, United managed to beat and draw Real Salt Lake and win at Seattle. That last game appeared to be a statement game from the Black-and-Red. Sure, the Sounders were looking pretty mediocre at the time, but a win in front of over 30,000 fans and on turf counts for a lot when you're at or near the bottom of the standings.
Once MLS resumed, United seemed to plateau a bit. A 2-0 loss at Columbus contained a decent enough performance, but no one on either side was very surprised at the scoreline that night. A fairly straightforward 2-0 win over the Richmond Kickers in Open Cup play was followed by 2 acceptable road draws at San Jose and New York. While DC was not continuing to improve at the same rate as before, things were not getting worse.
So much for that. In a game both clubs were treating as a must-win, DC spent 90 minutes treating the ball like a ticking time bomb and ultimately paid the price for one last turnover, conceding a totally avoidable goal to Roger Levesque in the 89th minute. Seattle may well look back at this game as the kind of gutsy win that can turn a season around. For many United fans, however, the reaction was closer to giving up on 2010 than anything else.
If you can stomach it, read on for more on what we can take from this disheartening defeat:
The biggest problem United had on the night was obviously a team-wide inability to hold possession. Virtually every player in black gave the ball away too frequently, and this often took place without particularly high pressure being applied. To call our play "careless" would be a vast understatement. Despite mediocre nights for many of Seattle's attacking players (really, all of them bar Fredy Montero), Dejan Jakovic and Julius James were having to do far too much to keep things scoreless.
Sadly, there's little to offer in the form of advice here. Sometimes things are as simple as "This is not good enough and has to be better." There's no tactical approach that prevents people from completing less than half their passes. We did go get some better players, but they only just got here. There's not someone sitting the bench that now deserves their shot. Until Pablo Hernandez and Branko Boskovic get fully acclimated to MLS play, the other players on the field are going to have to be much better with the ball than this if we want to avoid continued losses and shut outs. Some players have to work on having the focus to connect their passes more often, while others have to learn to think faster and figure out where not to pass the ball at a given moment. Jordan Graye probably has to work on both of these things.
This is upsetting, so I'm going to try to look at players that did do well. I mentioned James earlier, and he had yet another strong outing. I think at this point it's safe to say that Juan Manuel Pena and Carey Talley are a long way from getting back into the team again, because James has established himself as not just our best option to partner Jakovic, but as one of our best players at any position. We also got a lot out of Andy Najar, who was involved with virtually every dangerous chance we created. While he did quiet off as the game wore on, Najar created more than enough danger to cause a goal. Sadly, he was let down by his veteran teammates, who made Kasey Keller look good all night long.
I thought Santino Quaranta had an intriguing game. On the surface, things didn't go as planned. Quaranta played the most crucial offensive position given the formation and players available, but we didn't create all that much and ended up shut out. Not only that, but on our very best chance, he took too much power off his attempt with Keller stranded off the line, allowing Pat Ianni time to head clear. However, I thought Quaranta looked more consistently engaged in the game than he has in other recent games, and he had plenty of good ideas. Often, he was just slightly off in the execution of those ideas (see: several attempts to switch the point of attack that were barely broken up, and forcing Keller's best save of the match in the 76th minute). It's still not good enough from Tino, but I feel like this was noticeably better than it has been. If Quaranta can continue in this direction, these good ideas will bear fruit.
Speaking of intrigue, we got our first look at the cavalry, so to speak, as Pablo Hernandez and Branko Boskovic both debuted. Both look like they have respectable skill, and it looked like both have the natural instinct to play a short-passing style that thrives on combination passing. That's promising, because if both players are going to be successful signings, they'll have to combine well in the respective roles they'll be given. Looking at Hernandez, what I saw was a guy who has some physical strength, a decent touch, and perhaps an interest in playing towards the right (to give him more shooting opportunities with his left foot).
Boskovic, meanwhile, struck me as a very smooth player on the ball who makes sure he connects his passes when in tight spaces. There's clearly rust, however; whenever he tried to dribble out of trouble or spin to face upfield, he was blanketed by Osvaldo Alonso, who made several successful tackles on our new #27. Hopefully, Boskovic will get sharper in that respect; if that's the case, I don't think his passing game is too far from being good enough to create real danger. Finally, I also noticed that he seems to play to his height on set pieces. We've had other tall players - Josh Gros, for example - who didn't really get involved on set pieces. A lot of times, it's about attitude as much as anything (look at Carles Puyol scoring Spain's winner against Germany). Boskovic looks to have the attitude to be a factor on such plays, which could be helpful.
Obviously, a ton of things went wrong on the goal. Graye's attempted clearance was, I'm guessing, something like the 15th botched clearance from a United player on the night (with Graye guilty on at least half of them, and probably more). As it was the 89th minute and he'd been having a poor game, Graye should have been aware enough to play it very simple by that point. His error opened the door to the errors that followed, which included Jakovic misjudging the flight of Montero's cross (causing him to take a step toward it to cut it out preemptively, which allowed Levesque the space to aim his header) and Troy Perkins letting up a near-post goal.
What bugs me about this was that Graye shouldn't have been on the field any longer. Onalfo did the right thing in going all out for a win, since a tie does us virtually no good at this point. It might feel a hell of a lot better than this loss, but the reality is that we're talking about being 9 or 10 points out of the playoffs; if it's not a win right now, it's not good enough. My issue, as I said in the comments of Shatz's post-game thread, was who Onalfo chose to come out when it was time to go to a 343. McTavish had been having an alright game. Steve Zakuani was not his normal electric self, and you have to give at least partial credit to McTavish for that. I understand that, when chasing a result and going to a back three, the best way of lessening the risk of being hit on the counter is to keep speed on the field. Sure, Graye's faster than McTavish, but aren't Jakovic and James pretty fast too? Did we really need to risk leaving Graye on the field during arguably his worst game as a pro? It's not like McTavish is outright slow, and I'm pretty sure that James (who would have likely been where Graye was at the time of the goal if Onalfo had left McTavish in) would have made a proper clearance in that situation.
Ultimately, though, when Shatz said that we are a worse team than Seattle, he was right. Any team that gives the ball away as often as we did deserves to lose, and so it was. This game actually reminded me of our 2-1 win earlier this year against Kansas City, an awful match that remains the sloppiest MLS game I've seen this season. The difference Thursday night was that Seattle didn't hand us two sitters like the Wizards did. Waiting for your opponent to hand you goals isn't an effective strategy, especially when you can't afford to settle for draws. Then again, maybe I'm wrong; Seattle can't afford to settle for draws either, and their wait for a gift was finally rewarded. Perhaps we're just bad and unlucky. What a combination.