Kheli Dube had plenty to celebrate after scoring twice for the New England Revolution, but ultimately D.C. United is out of the US Open Cup because of some calamitous defending.
DC United's Open Cup ambitions have ended before they ever formally began, as the New England Revolution managed to escape from the Maryland SoccerPlex with a 3-2 victory in USOC qualifying. After the Revs turned three counterattacks - virtually the only three coherent moves forward they made in the first 70 minutes of play - into a 3-0 lead, United finally mustered a response, as Designated Player Branko Boskovic came up with two beautiful strikes to haul DC back into the game. Unfortunately, Boskovic would finish the game on the sidelines after receiving a hard kick to the knee, and the Revs would hang on grimly through six minutes of stoppage time to secure the victory. New England will face Sporting Kansas City in the next round, with the winner advancing to the Open Cup proper.
Much like United's previous Open Cup qualifier, DC held a clear edge in possession in the early stages but were unable to make much use of it. The Revolution slowly grew in ambition, eventually capitalizing on an apparent miscommunication between Ethan White, and Kurt Morsink to take the lead in the 34th minute. A simple ball behind the defense gave Kenny Mansally a chance to run at goal. Although he was tracked down well by Rodrigo Brasesco, his forward partner Kheli Dube was inexplicably unmarked, and finished with ease after Mansally cut the ball back across the top of the box for him.
If Dube's first goal was avoidable for DC, the second goal was simply unacceptable. Rookie Ethan White, in an attempt to control yet another Revolution long ball, ended up nodding the ball down to New England's Alan Koger. Koger could hardly believe his luck, as he slotted Dube - who just barely held himself onside - in alone for another simple finish just two minutes into the second half.
DC would show signs of life, with Boskovic forcing a spectacular save from keeper Bobby Shuttleworth and later hitting the post - both from similarly-placed free kicks about 20 yards out - but just as United truly began to perk up, New England made it 3-0. Morsink took his eyes off a throw-in from Brandon Barklage, allowing it to roll under his foot and hand the Revs a chance. Onstad did well to deny Koger with a kick-save on the initial shot, but DC would fail to clear despite numerous opportunities, with Morsink and Daniel Woolard hesitating over a bouncing ball before Koger would charge in and blast in New England's third in the 69th minute.
The United fightback would begin just four minutes later. Morsink showed admirable patience to turn down a chance at an awkward volley, instead smartly playing the ball to Charlie Davies, who had come on as a sub. Davies showed his class with a one-touch pass back to Boskovic, who despite being off-balance lashed the ball past Shuttleworth after taking a touch.
Boskovic would strike again in the 83rd minute, again showing tremendous skill. There didn't appear to be much danger as Boskovic received a pass from Andy Najar, but the Montenegro captain took advantage of some slack Revolution defending to hammer a low shot from 30 yards out into the lower corner. Shuttleworth appeared to get a hand on the ball, but Boskovic had hit the ball with such power that it made no difference. Unfortunately, United couldn't find an improbable third goal, and are out of the US Open Cup for 2011.
Read on for more details and player ratings:
Unlike our penalty kick victory over the Philadelphia Union in the previous round of the labyrinthine USOC qualifying process (side note: What's so hard about just putting the 16 US-based MLS clubs into the tournament proper?), this game saw the Revs field a true reserve team. Stephen McCarthy was the only starter in New England's 442, and even he is probably being phased into a reserve role after the acquisition of Benny Feilhaber. While most of the New England reserves have played a respectable number of minutes in MLS, it was still a group that we would fancy our chances against every time. United's 442, meanwhile, had the likes of Onstad, Boskovic, Najar, and Santino Quaranta; in other words, less of a reserve outfit and more of a mix of regulars and back ups.
United has on numerous occasions struggled with turning abundant possession into dangerous chances, and so it was Tuesday night. For the opening 25 minutes, the Revolution stayed focused on maintaining two blocks of four defensively, with clearances directed towards the wings being the only thing close to an attack. Despite the fact that they were inviting DC onto them, we simply didn't have the passing quality to make anything out of it. If I had tried to count the number of attempted through balls that were badly over-hit, I'd surely have lost track before the first half was over.
Adding to the frustration was the fact that, on numerous occasions, both Najar and Barklage opted not to go 1v1 with Revolution left back (and captain for the night) Chris Tierney. Tierney is a decent player, but his lack of speed can be exposed. Whether it was down to a tactical direction to attack down the middle or simply a lack of courage, United turned down the chance to force Tierney to chase at least five times before halftime, opting to either cross early or look for a combination in the crowded center of the field every time.
When a team fails to punish a team despite near-constant possession, they always run the risk of getting hit on the break, and so it was for DC. I can't say I was particularly surprised to see New England take the lead on the counter, as their one previous attack had been a similar move in which Dube was again unmarked, but couldn't finish thanks in part to a slightly imprecise pass from Mansally. Morsink and White seemed unsure of how to trade off the task of marking Dube, who would check back and then catch up to the play thanks to his speed.
The second goal was simply down to an individual mistake by White, who as much as I hate to say it had a howler. There was little the DC defense could do given the catastrophic nature of White's turnover. White was trying to do something more elegant than just charging in and heading the ball forward with little attacking purpose, but sometimes that's better than trying a rather difficult maneuver with no one behind you to save the day. Dube should be given credit for just barely staying onside, and his finish was classy, but this was suicidal defending.
Kevin Payne told Steve Goff that United didn't show up for the first hour, which I don't quite agree with. The ideas and effort were there going forward, but the execution was poor. Sometimes you have those nights, where the ball just isn't your friend. The way you scrape something out of those games is by defending well, which is exactly what we did not do against a team that did exactly what you'd expect of a Steve Nicol-coached reserve team on the road. Everyone in the house knew how New England would go about their business, but United simply couldn't cope with it. Whether it was poor communication, disastrous individual play, or hesitation - how Morsink and Woolard both failed to cut that loose ball out before Koger's goal, I'll never know - this was much more a case of United throwing the game away as opposed to the Revolution winning it via a canny tactical set up or individual brilliance.
There is something positive to take from this game, though, and that would be the second half play of most of our midfield. Boskovic scored two quality goals, obviously, but was also much sharper in his passing. Much like he was the best player on the field in the second half against New York, what we saw against the Revs was a guy you'd be willing to pay $500,000 a season. If Boskovic can recover from the crack he took from Koger - early reports are that his MRI came back negative, leaving him with just a contusion - he will have clearly played himself into a starting role. What's even more notable is that both starring performances have come in a central attacking role; the decision now appears to be less about Boskovic or Chris Pontius, but more about whether Ben Olsen will have to sit Dax McCarty or, more likely, Clyde Simms.
Najar and Quaranta also played much better after halftime. Despite being ribbed by the crowd for no apparent reason, Quaranta was very active in making himself available all over the field; he was the captain for the night, and it was a captain's performance in the second half. While he had a couple of down moments - in one thirty second span, he a) took up a bad angle that prevented him from shooting from seven yards out and b) elected to shoot from well over 30 yards out with options in the box - his endeavor and his movement were a big part in what was nearly a stirring comeback.
Najar, meanwhile, earned praise from Olsen after the game, as his ability to cut inside from both wings left the Revs scrambling on numerous occasions. Intriguingly, Najar's best two performances have been at the SoccerPlex; perhaps it's something about the "lovely" (read: overly long) drive up 270? In any case, the Najar we've seen in the Open Cup is the 2010 Rookie of the Year, and hopefully he'll carry that over to our league matches from this point on.
This is getting long, so let's get into the ratings:
Onstad - 3 There was nothing he could do about any of the goals, as Dube and Koger were in alone and finished well. He did have one strong kick save from Koger (moments before the William & Mary product bagged the winning goal), but that was literally the only other shot New England had.
Barklage - 1 The channel between him and White was easily our weakest spot on the field. His willingness to attack was nice, but he never once overlapped far enough to challenge Tierney. Looked every bit the conversion project he is at right back.
White - 1 Struggled all night. Entirely responsible for the second goal, and also must shoulder the bulk of the blame on the first goal, as he should have taken Dube whether Morsink communicated the switch or not. This is probably more of an aberration, but it must be said that he was our worst player on the night.
Brasesco - 3 Our best defender, though this was a game where our defense undoubtedly cost us a win. Showed good anticipation numerous times, and blocked several shots too. On this evidence, he's making progress rather quickly.
Woolard - 2 He'd have a 3 if it weren't for his involvement in the third goal. More conservative than you'd expect, but his rare runs forward did contribute to the attack.
Najar - 4 As much as it bothered me that he wouldn't run at Tierney, Najar still found a way to cause plenty of trouble for the Revs. I thought he had earned an injury-time penalty, but the ref - who also opted not to send Loewy off for tripping Blake Brettschneider to prevent a breakaway - lacked the courage to make the big call.
Morsink - 1 I credit him for his involvement in our first goal, but he was also a big contributor to the first and third goals against us, and had a few other unforced turnovers as well. He did appear less argumentative and pointlessly chippy than normal, but his other flaws were all on display throughout.
Boskovic - 5 Like the rest of the team, he spent the first half looking to play killer balls rather than the simple play. His second half, however, was outstanding even without the two spectacular goals. On this form, he's got to start.
Quaranta - 4 When United needed someone to inspire them and urge them forward rather than sideways, Quaranta was there time and again. It was something of a "little things" performance, as his touch let him down a few times, but he played like a captain should play.
Ngwenya - 2 Hard work is nice from a forward, but that's about all he offered. The service in the first half was poor, it must be said, but Ngwenya didn't offer any particularly dangerous runs either.
Brettschneider - 2 See above, though with better officiating he'd have at least forced the Revs down to 10 men with his one good run of the night.
Pontius - 3 He didn't figure into the goals, but Party Boy brought a spark off the bench by playing simply and staying in motion.
Davies - 4 Similar to Pontius, but he also added an assist for Boskovic's first goal. We are so much better when he's on the field.
McCarty - 4 Played just 11 minutes (well, 17 if you add in all of stoppage time) but probably covered every inch of the field while he was in. Calling his play "high energy" would be an understatement. Added to the improved movement and soccer IQ DC showed over the last half hour.