Sporting Kansas City won the midfield battle during First Kick 2012 at RFK Stadium. They did this by executing their game plan to get the ball to Graham Zusi and keep United from running their play through Branko Boskovic and Perry Kitchen.
It was disjointed. It was sloppy. It was kind of exactly the same. D.C. United were outplayed by defending Eastern Conference (regular season) Champions Sporting Kansas City, but the capital club still held onto the clean sheet for 92+ minutes before a late loss of focus on a set piece doomed the team to a loss in their first outing of 2012.
What They're Saying About It
Shatzer: Sporting Kansas City had far more chances and far more possession. The possession differential shouldn't be surprising. This was a team that was returning 10 starters from their last meeting against a team that was returning only six. Of course the SKC players are more familiar with each other. Of course they know where their teammates are going to go with the ball. But that doesn't quite explain why the Sporks were winning so many more of the 50-50 chances. Nor does it explain why so many passes from United players ended up on the feet of someone wearing blue.
Goff: The ideas were right, but the execution was off. Albanian striker Hamdi Salihi, a late signing, and MVP Dwayne De Rosario were non-threatening. A minor groin injury had hindered De Rosario's preseason preparations and Salihi didn't receive a consistent supply of service. Branko Boskovic, the playmaker returning from major knee surgery, displayed a rusty touch. Left wing Chris Pontius, back from a broken leg, showed promise but faded. Andy Najar was quick and tricky on the right flank but crossed poorly.
Salazar: On the rare occasions that United did find success in build-up, the side failed to threaten Kansas City's goal. In fact, Sporting goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen wasn't forced into a single save all night. A perfect example came in the 39th minute, when Chris Pontius combined brilliantly with Dwayne De Rosario atop Sporting's box. Pontius pushed his effort just wide, an opportunity the Californian was loathe not taking full advantage of.
Hund: What will rankle even more is that Ben Olsen has been harping incessantly on the need to improve on defensive set pieces. Where did they lose the game? Defensive set piece. It also looked to me that it was Woolard - who's an adequate enough player, but not an MLS starter - who lost his mark, presenting an open header from the corner.
Webb: United were on the defensive for most of the match as they look disjointed offensively, especially reigning league and newly minted Designated Player MVP Dwayne De Rosario. The Canadian just didn't have a very sharp night and his only contribution on the evening was the setting up of United's two most dangerous opportunities on either side of halftime by Chris Pontius and substitute Maicon Santos.
Hoffman: Leaving RFK, I had the inescapable feeling that I've seen this movie before. The last time I sat in Section 316, I was watching the team capitulate to Chicago Fire in stoppage time, and feeling the urge to drink. This time, I had to take a breath and realize that this was game 1 of a long season, and that this team has been retooled extensively with little time for coordination.
BDR: United is still the backpassingest team I've ever seen, still can't get the ball through center midfield to the wings or strikers, still plays dump and chase, still has its goalie punt 50-50 balls rather than play possession.
Jump with me, and we'll talk cohesion, game plans, and in-game adjustments.
What I'm Saying About It
First off, we lost the midfield battle. This had to do with a lot of things. Branko Boskovic and Perry Kitchen hadn't played together in this arrangement before. Boskovic and Dwayne De Rosario hadn't played together in this arrangement before. De Rosario and Hamdi Salihi hadn't played many minutes together before. The team's last preseason game was washed out by a deluge in Charleston. So things were inevitably a little disjointed.
Perhaps that inevitability informed Peter Vermis' game plan, which involved forcing United to play the ball back and to the flanks. Teal Bunbury did yeoman's work on defense for KC, dropping back to help Graham Zusi and Roger Espinoza mark Perry Kitchen rather than pressing our center backs. Kei Kamara and Bobby Convey pressed our fullbacks to funnel the ball to Brandon McDonald, and then they stopped. The Sporks were perfectly happy to leave McDonald with the ball at his feet, and he proved the strategy's effectiveness with several long balls to nobody in particular. B-Mac was a great addition to the team last year, and he makes us much more sound in defense. But for Pete's sake (and mine!) we need to reduce the number of long passes that man attempts. It's a possession killer.
Somewhat oddly, our possession improved when Ben Olsen had the midfield play flatter in possession midway through the first half, instructing Kitchen and Boskovic to play level with each other, but not in a particularly deep empty bucket. Kitchen started finding more time on the ball, and we did a better job of utilizing our wings and moving forward. Of course, when KC made their own adjustment at the half, they regained control of the possession battle, and we didn't do anything to counter, except to bring on fresh legs. At that point, United were never going to control the game.
It wasn't a corner kick that beat us. That is, it wasn't just a corner kick. It was a corner kick that was created by a free kick earned when two tired DC players gave up a free kick. Brandon McDonald was left alone to defend CJ Sapong when Jakovic was too far away and didn't rotate to help fast enough. McDonald got skinned and brought down the KC forward. Graham Zusi's ensuing free kick was deflected out for a corner. And the rest you know. The guys were always going to be tired after 90+ minutes against the league's most athletic attack, but failing to maintain any kind of possession exacerbated every step of that sequence. That lack of possession was the result of KC's executing their game plan and keeping the ball away from our possession-building midfielders. Of course, it didn't help that our guys in the center of the park - Kitchen, Boskovic and even DeRo - all had games to forget.
It's early days. The lack of understanding is expected. The tiring at the end I can understand this early in the year, especially against a team that runs you the way SKC does. I really would have liked to see Benny make the adjustments needed through the second half instead of subbing like for like. And obviously, I would have loved to see the team finish out the clean sheet and seal the point.
So, 1,000+ words in, where are we? Honestly, we're just about where we were before Saturday's game, and just about where we were in the first minute of second half stoppage time Saturday night. KC was always going to be a test, and the circumstances surrounding the first game were always going to make it tougher. I know we were all eager for the season to get going, but this game tells us next to nothing about the team. Did it go exactly as we hoped? Obviously not. But it went just about the way we should have expected it to with an unfamiliar team and critical pieces still knocking the rust off. Remember that Kansas City held the best record in the Eastern Conference last year and isn't incorporating wholesale changes to their lineup. Essentially, we lost to a very good team that executed a well-conceived game plan to good effect. That's the one definitive thing we can take away from this one sample. For everything else - that we need to put Boskovic on a bus, that DeRo needs to be in midfield, that the team will only win if we blah blah blah, etc. - it is way too early to say with any kind of authority.
If the team still looks disjointed and rusty come May, I'll change my tune. But this weekend's loss did nothing to change my belief that this team is poised for big things in 2012.