Last year, it took D.C. United six league matches to score three goals. This year, just one.
The difference was more than just a player. Its multiple players, its chemistry, and its attitude.
This United team passed its first test with a 3-1 win over the Columbus Crew last night. I'm not about to start saving up for a trip to MLS Cup 2011 quite yet, but we couldn't have asked for a better start. United is tied atop the Eastern Conference standings with three points, and Charlie Davies is tied atop the Golden Boot race with two goals.
Both of these teams are rebuilding. Only seven of 22 players who started last night also started in their last meeting. But one team is clearly farther ahead in the rebuilding process.
Following his first win since having the "interim" label removed from his Head Coach title, Ben Olsen opened the press conference with a single phrase that could easily be turned into a new marketing campaign - "Speed is real. It changes the game." Olsen tried to downplay Davies' role by calling this game a team effort.
Every guy in the [locker room] is exhausted. They worked their tales off. They helped each other out, if one guy missed a guy, the next one was there. Our team defending was pretty good. You know, we had some early season moments. We could have gotten punished but overall, I thought we were the better team today and the atmosphere was great. Overall, a pretty good start.
Pretty good, eh? I think every one of the 18,000+ fans in the stadium would have graded the experience just a tad above "pretty good."
With two goals in 38 minutes, if Charlie Davies starts next week against the New England Revolution (as I expect he will) and plays 90 minutes, and then plays 90 minutes in every other MLS match the rest of the year, he is on pace to finish the season with 156 goals. Okay, we know Davies can't repeat this performance every week, but the important thing is that he now has confidence. That's why it was absolutely the right call for Davies to take the penalty kick just 12 minutes after entering the match. Davies described his second goal to us in the locker room after the match. "I knew Burch was gonna play the ball down the line, and I knew I had speed on Chad Marshall." Marshall slipped, Davies used his speed to round Will Hesmer, and the great comeback story was complete.
In his press conference after the match though, Olsen wanted to highlight someone else as the "player of the game." He gave that honor to Josh Wolff. Wolff's opening goal was the most impressive one of the night as he beat his defender and powered the ball to the near post to beat Hesmer. It wasn't just the goal though. Wolff played well throughout the night, almost setting up a goal for McCarty in the early minutes of the game when he beat Rich Balchan on the right wing for an open cross and found McCarty open at the top of the box, but the midfielder struck the ball just wide of the post.
I'm going to have a hard time being anything but positive after this performance from United, so there's lots of Four's to go around, starting with almost the entire back-line. Perry Kitchen was also making his MLS debut and was matched up for most of the night against the most productive pure-striker in MLS history. The rookie held Jeff Cunningham without a single shot on goal.
Marc Burch proved in my mind that he should remain D.C.'s starter for the immediate future by turning in a quality performance. He cleared the ball off the line on an Eddie Gaven free kick after Marshall had interfered with Onstad. Had the Crew scored that early goal, the result of this match could have been entirely different. Burch was also active sending in crosses, and was kept from a Five rating only because he was beaten by Tommy Heinemann on a free kick that forced a diving save from Onstad.
Burch also earned one assist, and another assist went to Jed Zayner, who played Wolff through on the first goal. Zayner also stopped a great chance for the Crew by poking the ball away from Andres Mendoza just before the forward could take a shot (although Zayner may not have had to recover if he hadn't been turned the wrong way by Mendoza moments sooner).
The midfield may have been United's greatest strength though. They did well in possession and kept the Crew out of D.C.'s third of the field for the majority of the match. Dax McCarty won just about every 50-50 ball sent into his area, and does a fantastic job of holding onto the ball through traffic and under pressure. Andy Najar also had a very good night for United, especially on defense.
I wasn't entirely happy with Pat Onstad's performance. Twice he came out for a cross and missed, one time forcing Burch into making a clearance off the line as I mentioned earlier. Perhaps these were just a few cobwebs that needed to be shaken off though, because Onstad seemed to get better as the game wore on. He seemed more in control in the second half.
I don't want to be too hard on Joseph Ngwenya because Olsen said in the press conference that he "picked up a knock," which was why Davies was warming up at halftime and probably entered earlier than Olsen had initially planned. But if that performance is going to be the norm for Ngwenya, then he easily could fit in well with our group of forwards from last season. His play was very negative. He often turned away from the goal to pass backwards when his teammates tried to put him in a good position. That's not what I expect to see from a speedy striker. Ngwenya was also caught from behind by Balchan on one play when he should have been 1v1 against Hesmer, and sent two attempts clear over the crossbar.
That was truly a delightful and heart-warming performance from United. Cathartic, one might say. But it is just the beginning. And it was against a team that was much more disappointing than I'd expected, and that made some really strange choices. (Pretty smart leaving your apparent best player Robbie Rogers on the bench for 66 minutes).
Perhaps we can look at the early stages of the 2011 season as a gradual building up towards the real competition. The New England Revolution might not be much better next week, but it could be more of a challenge on the road. A trip to the Colorado Rapids and a visit from the Los Angeles Galaxy early next month certainly won't be this simple.
But McCarty told me after the match that they're ready for it.
We're putting the league on alert right now. There's no one in MLS we're afraid of.