With an effort like they put forth tonight in any number of previous matches, DC United would be in the MLS Playoffs. It's not really even a question.
Ben Olsen told his players before the game that he wanted to "go down swinging." They sure did. The atmosphere in RFK Stadium during the last 20 minutes tonight is unmatched. The crowd was fully invested. Both teams were pushing, throwing caution to the wind. But the result was a 1-1 draw with the Portland Timbers. The result is United watching the playoffs from home for the fourth year in a row.
After the match, Olsen said "That's the way you want to go down. Basically every guy not being able to walk after the game." The team left it all on the field tonight in one of the most entertaining matches I've ever seen. Chances were readily available for both sides. The game easily could have ended with either side victorious any number of times. Neither did. Bill Hamid came up big for United, but the opportunities squandered (not just in this game, but in this entire season) will haunt this team for good.
D.C. came out of the gates with almost alarming amounts of energy, aggressively and sometimes uncontrollably flying all over the field, giving up fouls when fouls weren't necessary. But things settled down and then Portland struck.
On the first play of the match in which Kenny Cooper wasn't offside, a cross from Rodney Wallace found Cooper in the box irreperably unmarked between Brandon McDonald and Ethan White. The two center backs had been excellent in the leadup, but failed to communicate on the goal.
Once United fell behind though, it was always going to be difficult for the team to find a way back in. With the Timbers defending with at least nine men behind the ball for the entire second half, there wasn't any space left in the middle.
Still, Dwayne De Rosario found a way. As he always has before. Olsen spoke about his ability to come up huge in big games. He's done it his entire career. Tonight he did it while hurt, too. Olsen mentioned how DeRo seems to pick up a new knock every night. "People are just kicking the shit out of him. I'd do the same thing if I was playing against Dwayne De Rosario." I didn't expect to see the coach's sense of humor come out on a night like tonight, but it did.
He also reveled in the youth that has helped revitalize this team from last place to just-missing-the-playoffs. "Perry Kitchen, Chris Korb, and Ethan White all played like men today," Olsen said. Sure did. Kitchen in particular will play a huge role in this organization for the next several years if Olsen has his way.
In the end though, I thought this match screamed of needing a fourth forward to come on in reserve. Someone with speed. Someone with, dare I say it, a South American flare. Bringing on Blake Brettschneider and Joseph Ngwenya just doesn't do the same trick. That's an issue that D.C. will have to address this offseason. Would've been nice if they'd addressed it sooner though.
It's fitting that Ngwenya and Brettschneider each had opportunities to finish the game, but came up just short - Brettschneider when he put the ball in the net from an offside position, and Ngwenya on the play that went begging for him to be the hero. He could have made up for an entire season's worth of disappointment with just one little finish with the ball right at his feet, but it didn't come.
The areas that United needs to improve this offseason are clear. We'll talk about them for the next several months. Fortunately there are lots of bright spots on this team. One of them, I think, happens to be the coach.
"We're a good enough team to make the playoffs. I can promise you, I'll get better as a coach, and this team will get better."