The Game of Thrones season has been over for a week now, so I'm going to assume that anybody who cares has seen the episodes. That said, skip down to "Their Words" if you're behind and don't want to see any spoilers, however minor. I kind of feel like Theon Greyjoy at the hands of Ramsay Snow right now. After being taken captive and tortured and flayed, Theon escaped with the help of someone he thought was a compatriot, only to be led unknowingly straight back into the torture chamber when it turned out his tormenter was simply posing as a friend to destroy Theon's psyche. D.C. United's play in the last week has done the same thing for their fans: show us a glimpse of hope, only to rip it away like the psychopath Ramsay Snow.
Martin Shatzer, B&RU: Unfortunately we can't say the same about Brandon McDonald, who has continued his terribly disappointing 2013 form. After being benched for four of United's last five league matches, McDonald was forced back into action due to injuries to Ethan White and Dejan Jakovic, but he did little to earn his starting job back. McDonald could be deemed culpable on both of Toronto's goals, losing a header duel to Robert Earnshaw on the first, and then giving away the very definition of an unnecessary foul to set up the free kick for Toronto's second, which turned out to be an own goal off Daniel Woolard.
Steve Goff, Washington Post: If you can't beat one-win Toronto FC, if you can't manage an early lead, if you can't defend set pieces and you continue to record own goals, if you can't build momentum after winning three days earlier, if you can't reward the indomitable supporters who still turn up on East Capitol Street despite the misery, the question must be asked: Will D.C. United win another league match this season?
Pablo Maurer, Soccer by Ives: In the end, however, the story was the same for United, who were undone by a combination of offensive impotence and lackluster work in central defense. When asked if he had any thoughts about his club's woes defending set pieces, United's head coach didn't have much to say. "Yeah, I've got some thoughts," a despondent Olsen commented. "But I'm not going to talk about them right now."
John Leung, Waking the Red: Here's tonight's million-dollar question: did Toronto FC, on the back of a 30th minute Robert Earnshaw goal coupled with a 41st minute own goal off a Luis Silva set piece, beat DC United, or did the latter, whose reply was off a Dwayne De Rosario penalty won from a Nick DeLeon foul in the box in the 19th minute, lose?
Ben Olsen, via dcunited.com: [Toronto] had one shot and they scored on two set pieces. We didn't have a good game. We just didn't play good in any facet of the game. I thought we looked tired. They had a lot more energy than us. They were very direct and picked up a lot of second balls. I thought that some of the guys that came into the game, some of the newer guys, looked a little confused. We put a lot into that Open Cup, so I'm not putting too much stock into the energy level, but it's still disappointing the way we played. There was a lack of ball movement, ideas in the final third.
John Thorrington, via dcunited.com: You're running out of time to put it right. I think if you take this week as a whole, two out of the three games were positive. It's always tough when you come off, you've put a lot into a game on Wednesday to come back on Saturday. Excuses are like opportunities, if you look for them they'll be there. We saw this as an opportunity to get out of last place and continue the work we'd built up on the last two games, which were by and large positive. It's disappointing. We'll have to go back to the drawing board, see where we could have done better and learn how to not give up goals at bad times, how to manage leads and play like we can. We showed Wednesday how we can play. People will point to tiredness as an easy excuse, but for me that's an excuse. Over the course of the game we didn't play well enough to get anything more than we did.
This was the worst performance of the year for D.C. United. Against a team that should have been our equal in incompetence, we went above and beyond. The ball movement was slow, wrong decisions were made with the ball, and silly, unnecessary challenges were entirely too common. But the Black-and-Red were in it right up until the first substitution, just before the hour mark. Taylor Kemp entered the game for John Thorrington, the rookie slotting into left back and pushing Alain Rochat to Thorrington's midfield position. Rochat wasn't bad in the spot - not as good as the tiring and injury prone Thorrington (no fault on taking him out at that point, after he went 90 on Wednesday), but not bad.
Kemp, on the other hand, was beyond terrible. He wilted under pressure, no matter whether the ball was at his feet in our defensive third or whether an attacker was driving at him. His crosses went out for goal kicks or dropped harmlessly into the arms of Toronto 'keeper Joe Bendik. He provided no defensive help and less than nothing going forward. When I saw number 33 ready to enter the match for Thorrington, I thought he'd slot into the left side of midfield, pushing Nick DeLeon into the middle. I was wrong in my assumption, but really, Ben Olsen got this one wrong, and that substitution is where the game was lost for good.
The Last Word
Identity. I talked about it some on Filibuster a few weeks back, and I'll have some more to say in an upcoming column, but let's spend some time here talking about it, too. There are some teams who have an undeniable identity: LA Galaxy (clean sheets and game-breakers), Real Salt Lake (cerebreal midfield passing), Sporting Kansas City (athleticism, high pressure, direct attack) and the San Jose Earthquakes (Stoke City) all come to mind. And there are teams that don't have one. Late last year, D.C. United had an identity: without captain Dwayne De Rosario, the Black-and-Red would keep the clean sheet first and look to poach a goal at the other end. It wasn't a long-term identity, but it got the job done. Each player knew their role and bought into the identity.
In 2013, United has lost that. They can't be called a defense-first team. They aren't a direct-attacking team or a possession-hoarding team. They aren't a cross it to the striker team or a play through the middle team. They're just a team that's allowed 19 more goals than they've scored, in 15 games played. And identity - or lack thereof - is one of the reasons why.
Without an identity - or any sort of vision for what the team will be on the field - United is going to falter. It's cliche to say that every crisis presents an opportunity, but with only the U.S. Open Cup left to play for and the international transfer window opening in three weeks' time, now is the moment to decide on an identity for the long term and to pursue it with single-minded focus. More losses this year won't make things any worse for the club unless the organization fails to capitalize on the more than half a season head start it has on next season and the future.
Of course, Ben Olsen and his players should continue trying to win games both within the league and in other competitions. But for the ownership, the future should be paramount. If Dave Kasper and Ben Olsen don't have a longer-term team identity in mind when they shop for players this summer, then they should be shown the door, and new people with new ideas should be brought in. Either way, a commitment to building a roster and a team that stands for something - whatever it may be - should be the first and last item on every to-do list at RFK stadium, from Jason Levien down through Dave Kasper and Ben Olsen to the ticket reps and groundskeeper.
It has to start today, because this isn't just a losing team. It's a team without an identity.