On Tuesday, Sep. 11, D.C. United fans everywhere held their breath as the first tweet came in from Canadian media outlets about Dwayne De Rosario's injury in the opening minutes of Canada's World Cup Qualifier in Panama. In the days to follow, D.C. United's fears were realized when it was announced that DeRo would almost certainly be out for the remainder of the season.
Since that time, D.C. United has played five matches, and we've (re)learned a lot about this team as they've been forced to play without their Captain and best player. So, here are the top five truths revealed about this D.C. United team over the last five matches.
1. D.C. United gets results, yet they leave fans wanting more. In so many ways, the last five matches have been a microcosm of the entire season for D.C. United. A 4-0-1 record, earning 13 of a possible 15 points, yet doing so in a way that often has fans scratching their heads or throwing their arms up in the air in bewilderment. There is no doubt that the last five games haven't been D.C. United's best stylistic performances of the season, but the team produced where it matters (in points) against almost all expectations. Yes, the results came against a weak slate of teams, but five-game unbeaten streaks are not common in this league no matter who the opponents are. In fact, in this year's 323-game Major League Soccer season, only 20 such streaks have happened, and D.C. United is one of seven teams with two five-game unbeaten streaks.
|Team||Unbeaten Streak||# of Wins||First Game||Last Game|
|New England Revolution||5||2||2-Jun||8-Jul|
|New York Red Bulls||6||5||28-Apr||23-May|
|New York Red Bulls||5||3||10-Aug||15-Sep|
|Real Salt Lake||7||5||25-Apr||16-Jun|
|San Jose Earthquakes||7||6||24-Mar||2-May|
|San Jose Earthquakes||7*||5||25-Aug||Ongoing|
|Sporting Kansas City||7||7||10-Mar||18-Apr|
|Sporting Kansas City||10*||6||4-Aug||Ongoing|
2. D.C. United is opportunistic. What better word describes this club over the last five matches? We all knew going into this five-game stretch that it was the easiest of the entire season with five non-playoff teams to face. But, three of those games were on the road, and with the loss of DeRo and the fact that the team had descended to 6th place in the Eastern Conference following their loss at Real Salt Lake on Sep. 1, there was no reason to expect this current unbeaten streak. But, D.C. United took advantage of their weak opponents to maximum effect. So effective, in fact, that over these last five games (which represent about 16% of the season so far), they've increased their season point total by almost 32% (from 41 to 54 points). The team has also been opportunistic in individual games. At the Philadelphia Union on Sep. 20, Lionard Pajoy took advantage of the time the Union's defense gave him, to set up on a volley that he crushed into the upper half of the goal for a 1-0 win. On Sep. 29, D.C. United traveled to the Portland Timbers and took advantage of a close (not outright bad) call that gave them a penalty kick that led to a 1-1 draw. Finally, Hamdi Salihi did what he does best by being in the right place at the right time to poach a goal on Oct. 6 at Toronto FC following a bad mistake by Toronto keeper Milos Kocic to earn an unlikely 1-0 win. You may call it lucky, but I call it opportunistic because D.C. United puts themselves in a position to take advantage of these opportunities when they arise (see #4 below).
3. D.C. United has met expectations on the road. For several months, I've been among the crowd trumpeting the need for D.C. United to improve their road play. But, as dissatisfying as it may seem, their 2-0-1 road record since DeRo went down means they have met expectations for what a good MLS team needs to do on the road in a season. And the 7 points D.C. United earned on the road in these three matches were absolutely vital to their playoff chances. With 17 total points from away games this season, they have now averaged at least a point every time they've gone on the road. Perhaps we would feel better about their road performance if it actually resulted from 17 straight draws on the road, or if the team had beaten a few better opponents away from home, but in the end, D.C. United's away record looks like many other quality teams in MLS. So, do I want them to play better on the road for the remainder of this season and into the playoffs? Absolutely! But I won't say they've been horrible on the road any longer since only six teams have earned more points on the road at this point of the season. BTW, here is the overall Supporters Shield table with results from away games included. Other than the top two teams, D.C. United's road record fits in comfortably:
|Team||Total Points||Games Played||Away Wins||Away Losses||Away Draws||Away Points|
|San Jose Earthquakes||64||32||9||5||2||29|
|Sporting Kansas City||59||32||8||4||4||28|
|Real Salt Lake||55||32||6||7||3||21|
|New York Red Bulls||53||32||4||7||5||17|
|New England Revolution||29||32||1||13||2||5|
4. D.C. United won't go away easily. During their current 4-0-1 streak, D.C. United has scored a modest six goals, but they have only conceded two. With a defense that has crystallized around the foursome of Chris Korb, Brandon McDonald, Dejan Jakovic, and Andy Najar (who have started all five of the recent matches), D.C. United has become a tough defensive unit that is backstopped by a superb keeper in Bill Hamid. Because of this excellent scoring defense, D.C. United has managed to hang around in games they were outplayed in only to later take advantage of opportunities that presented themselves to steal a win or a tie. D.C. United has also proven in this season's Eastern Conference playoff race to be a team that won't be dismissed easily. Despite the summer-long descent from 1st place to 6th that reached its low point in the last game before DeRo was injured (at RSL on Sep. 1, a 1-0 defeat), D.C. United did not cave in to their misfortune. Imagine how confident the Columbus Crew and Houston Dynamo must have been when they woke up on Sep. 12 ahead of D.C. United in the Eastern Conference standings and learned that DeRo was out for the season? No way did they foresee D.C. United passing them in the standings to get back into a playoff spot. Looking ahead to the playoffs, who in the Eastern Conference (other than Sporting Kansas City who are one of the league's two elite teams along with the San Jose Earthquakes) won't be worried about playing D.C. United? Certainly the Black-and-Red won't be prohibitive favorites in any playoff series, but aside from Sporting, their opponents won't be either.
5. D.C. can still improve--a lot. Look at the overall league table above. With only two matches left for most teams, a total of four teams have more than D.C. United's 54 points: San Jose Earthquakes (64), Sporting Kansas City (59), Chicago Fire (56), and Real Salt Lake (55). And to be fair to Seattle, if they win their next game they will surpass D.C. United and sit on 55 points after 32 games. But if you sit back and look at the big picture, this is really a significant achievement for a team that hasn't been to the playoffs in the last four seasons. Yet how many of us are satisfied with how the team has played throughout the entire season? Certainly there have been stretches of very strong play (the seven-game unbeaten streak) and individual games that were excellent (the 4-2 victory against Chicago at RKF comes to mind), and the last five games have given us great results, but we all know this team can play much better. Down the stretch, can Ben Olsen make the tactical changes so many have been calling for to put some punch back in the offense while keeping the defensive play strong, all while Bill Hamid continues to make ridiculous saves when all else fails? Can individual players gain their top form just in time for the playoffs, and will subs continue to make game-winning plays when needed? Is there any chance of an "October surprise" with DeRo returning before the end of the season (John Harkes has alluded to this on each of the last two CSN telecasts of D.C. United away games). Time will tell, but this team is sitting in a good spot right now and still has upside--and that's not a bad place to be headed into the final two games of the regular season, and the playoffs.
What about you? What have you (re)learned about D.C. United over the last five matches?