Was it Andy Najar's return to fullback? Daniel Woolard deputizing in central defense? Lewis Neal getting his first top-flight start? Hamdi Salihi banging a Goal of the Week nominee (and potential winner but for Fredy Montero's wonderstrike in the midweek)? A cobbled-together back line nevertheless keeping the clean sheet (even against the still-pointless Reds)? A supposedly desperate TFC side playing "park the bus" - at home? United still managing to find the net twice, overcoming a clear hand ball on the line?
Whatever it was, we're back in the W column, and the only team ahead of the Black-and-Red in the East just dropped their second straight. Not too shabby.
What They're Saying About It
Shatzer: Many questioned the lineup choices of Ben Olsen today, but all those choices paid off. Najar did well in defense while also getting far forward when the opportunity was available, and Woolard looked far more comfortable in the middle than Robbie Russell had in the previous match (although the opponent should be considered).
Salazar: It wasn't with the players you'd expect, and - at times - it wasn't very pretty. But in the aftermath of a 2-0 win over Toronto FC, D.C. United's makeshift back four could claim one of the club's best defensive performances of the young season. So how - less than 72 hours after allowing five goals in San Jose - did the Black-and-Red manage their first shutout since April 7 against Seattle? The rather surprising answer is that the clean sheet had as much to do with attack as it did defense.
Goff: Olsen praised Salihi's patience during the unproductive stretch and scarce playing time. "The guys from Europe understand it more than the Americans and guys like me," Olsen said. "They are used to having such competition in their sides in Europe, so [sitting out] happens more often. When you get your chance, you better make the most of it."
Hund: TFC just might erase any records for futility that Onalfo's United inked in the Big Book of MLS Failures. They're terrible, so a road victory and clean sheet against them should probably be taken with a generous dose of salt. That said, you have to win the games set before you, and United were playing with a new-look lineup after Olsen rode his winning team to exhaustion. A road win and a shut-out with a makeshift back line speaks to the quality of the squad, even with the current freakish rash of injuries knocking out spots 2-4 on the center back depth chart.
BDR: Yes, it was Toronto, but it was also United's sixth game in three weeks, their legs were shot, their central defenders all injured, their all-star rookie was hammied, and to trot out a hoary sports cliche, good teams win the games they should no matter what. An impressive and satisfying and encouraging win.
What I'm Saying About It
Just for the record, with all the Strange I outlined at the top, I think the weirdest thing about Saturday was Brandon McDonald - he of the patented Long Ball to Nobody In Particular - dishing the dimes on both goals, to bring his assist tally to three. In the last week. To make a quick Arsenal comparison, his passing range has gone from "Alex Song 2010" to "Alex Song 2012" within a matter of days. That, to say the least, was unexpected, and even if he reverts to his usual self, B-Mac has now shown flashes of distribution that will at least keep opponents from following Sporting Kansas City's plan from the season opener to funnel the ball to McDonald and let him thump a 50/50 ball downfield.
I was hosting a Kentucky Derby party on Saturday, so I didn't get to see most of the game. I did, however, manage to find a spot in front of the TV (which had the game on till the late stages before switching over to Derby coverage) in time for Salihi's strike, and what a goal it was. I'm guessing he and Dwayne De Rosario had a preseason bet to see who could strike first with a scissor/bicycle kick. De Ro has an assist and a save-of-the-week-forcing shot while on the bike, but Salihi's the first to tickle the twine directly. Somebody will have to see what the stakes were at some point. Hopefully the competition won't end, though - good things are happening when United goes all acrobatic, so let's keep doing it.
Before the game, in the comments to Benuski's lineup post, frequent commenter and fellow podcaster Ted Meyer and I were debating potential formation shifts. The likeliest thing happened, of course, and Ben Olsen ran out his preferred 4-4-2 diamond. But what he did with that diamond pretty well ground the shackles of predictability into dust. Nick DeLeon's hamstring (say it with me guys: stretching is good) forced a change that brought Lewis Neal into the fold, and Robbie Russell's own wear and tear pushed Woolard centrally, giving us a back line that would have had a competent/confident opponent salivating. Olsen got it right, though, because TFC are neither of those things, and they chose to sit back and let our midfield dictate play, a state of affairs that protected our makeshift back four.
Coming up for the boys in black is a full week of rest before the last game of the 3-game roadtrip and DeRo and Pat Onstad's glorious return to Houston to spoil the opening of the new (and gorgeous by all accounts) BBVA Compass Stadium. Following that is another quick turn-around, as United get the up-and-down (but currently "up") Colorado Rapids at RFK midweek and TFC (again? Didn't we just play these guys?) the following weekend.