The Last Word: D.C. United's Nightmare Opening Match

Paul Frederiksen-USA TODAY Sport

Other than the fact meaningful soccer was being played once again at RFK Stadium, absolutely nothing went as planned Saturday night. It was a nightmare opening, and now the franchise finds itself at a pivotal point.

Saturday night's season-opening match at RFK Stadium was a hauntingly disappointing reminder that, despite all the new faces on D.C. United this season, a bright line of continuity in both on-field form and results continues to link 2014 to 2013. And, given a number of other dynamics surrounding the club, this weekend's loss finds many fans looking for signs something positive will soon happen...but is there reason for hope?

Their Words:

- Steven Goff, via Washington Post--"D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen had preached patience through the preseason and asked victory-starved supporters not to render judgment right away. With seven new starters injected into a team that won three times last year, this promises to take a while. But even with tempered expectations, Olsen and United were left disappointed with almost every aspect of a 3-0 opening loss to the Columbus Crew in front of 13,840 at RFK Stadium on Saturday night...Despite all the roster moves, United still seems to lack someone who can create opportunities and break down a defense. Eddie Johnson, the U.S. national team forward acquired from Seattle, did not receive consistent service and was not sharp on the ball. Defensively, United was beaten badly on the first goal and did not receive any favors from replacement referee Andres Pfefferkorn on the second."

- ChrisTeale--"The fireworks that accompanied the singing of the national anthem before the game reflected a cautious optimism around RFK Stadium after a dreadful 2013 season and a drastic upheaval in playing staff. However, D.C. United could not turn that hope into points as they lost 3-0 to the Columbus Crew thanks to a double from Federico Higuain and a Jairo Arrieta strike..."

- Pablo Maurer, via mlssoccer.com--"D.C. United and the Columbus Crew entered their matchup on Saturday evening with something in common: roster turnover. Both teams rebuilt their squads from the inside out following a disappointing 2013 campaign - United's starting XI featured seven new faces, including US national team star Eddie Johnson, while Columbus took the pitch with four newcomers. In the end, it would be Columbus who'd play more like a team, while United showed much of the uncertainty one would expect from a squad with so many new faces."

- Adam Taylor--"Higuain > Silva + Kitchen"

- Ben Olsen, via dcunited.com--"I thought we would be in better shape than we were today, but we have two weeks to get back to work. I know we can still strike at any time. I think that we were just a little bit off in some of the final things that really mattered tonight, and that was on the offensive end. Defensively, we struggled to deal with how many numbers the Crew threw at us. I thought they did a very good job at offsetting us. We didn't handle it so well in the first half."

- Chad Ashton, via dcunited.com--"Nicky [DeLeon's] energy was a little bit low; he was sick and not too many people know that. I think that showed. But, when Cristian is going to step, he needs to get there, and if he can't get there he needs to foul so he isn't giving that chance away. We did it three times before we gave that goal away, so we need to solve problems quicker on the field...Higuain causes problem. His movement is different, but there are other teams in the league that play similarly. We have to be able to solve that, when players are dropping into the midfield, creating extra numbers in there. We need to be able to handle that. It seemed like we were a man down in the middle of the field...[Eddie Johnson] needs to figure out where he fits within this puzzle. I thought too many times tonight, he played backwards or faced backwards. That's not really Eddie's strength. His strength is to stay high and stretch the defense and get into the box. Maybe at times we didn't get numbers forward, so he felt like he needed to come back to get the ball. But moving forward, we want to get him high and more aggressive."

- Bill Hamid, via dcunited.com--"Yeah, it is always going to be hard to get things right immediately, but no we didn't expect to come in here and lose three nothing...I think all around we looked good at times and at forward we threatened them a lot. There were a lot of situations where the ball was bouncing around in their six and they just muddled up on their side. I think we were very good, honestly. I think moving the ball forward we looked very good. I think at times we were organized and at other times we weren't. I think overall it was a very good performance."

- Columbus Crew defender Michael Parkhurst, via dcunited.com--"It really brings us up. We're a young team with a lot of new things going on, so that first goal just brings us together and gives us the fight to keep going. You know, it was such a good goal too. We've been working on that kind of goal all preseason. It's great to see us doing that during the regular season."

My Words:

Much has already been written here on Black and Red United about what transpired during the match against Columbus (see here, here, here, and here--and be sure to read the comments). I won't repeat the problems which have already been well discussed, but I will pose the most interesting question I heard asked during the telecast. Watching the game on MLS LIVE, those of us who weren't at RFK Stadium to see the match in person heard the Columbus Crew announcers ask the following (paraphrased by DCUFaninMissouri on our B&RU Gamethread):

1st announcer - "You see the individual talent on the field from the new arrivals from DC, but they don't seem to be collectively together at times."

2nd announcer - "The Crew have a similar situation with new guys coming in. How come they don't seem to be affected by that?"

My match notes are similar, paraphrasing the exchange between the two Crew TV commentators as asking, "Why does Columbus look like a "team" faster than D.C. United despite both teams having lots of new faces?"

Of course this was only the first game of 34 to be played during the MLS Regular Season. And fortunately, the entire Eastern Conference was dreadful on this opening weekend, with the nine teams in action going a combined 2-1-6 (with Toronto FC having a bye week). But, with other MLS teams who faced significant player (and/or coach) turnover in the offseason looking strong in week one, the Columbus TV crew's question is fair.

The Last Word:

The dynamics around the entire D.C. United franchise right now are precarious. Let's look at a few of the principal issues facing the team:

- Stadium vote--the team has made a renewed push in recent weeks to openly encourage its fans to support the Buzzard Point stadium deal, while vocal opposition has emerged on the DC Council--all set within the context of the District's ongoing mayoral race.

- Performance on the field--last year's league struggles are well known, but it has now been over 7 months since D.C. United won an MLS regular season match. Since they beat the Montreal Impact 3-1 on Aug. 3, 2013, the Black-and-Red are 0-3-10 in league matches (3 points, with 9 goals scored, 26 conceded, and three losses by 3 goals). This isn't competitive, and it's no wonder many fans are questioning when the team will return to respectability. Winning would make all other issues better, but D.C. United now won't take the field again until Mar. 22 when they take on the mega-spenders of Toronto.

- Attendance--last year's all-time worst attendance average of 13,646 has been well documented, but Saturday's opening night attendance of 13,840 is cause for huge concern (opening night attendance was 17,072 in 2013, 16,314 in 2012, and 18,402 in 2011). Over the last three seasons, the final average home attendance for each of those three years ended up being ~80-85% of the opening night attendance for each season. If this dynamic holds in 2014, D.C. United is facing a final 2014 average attendance between 11,072 - 11,764 (which would be a ~14-19% drop in attendance over last season). Time will eventually reveal what the actual 2014 average home attendance will be at RFK (and my gut says it will be higher than the 80-85% numbers above), but D.C. United appears to be in uncharted territory for how bad attendance could get this season.

- The front office and technical staff--how secure are their positions? Does it matter?

Each of the issues above is intertwined with the other issues. If the team continues to be non-competitive on the field and attendance continues to decline, will the DC Council vote on the new stadium be impacted? Similarly, will a successful vote help attendance? If the team starts to win, what's the effect on attendance and the stadium deal?

For this team right now, the early season bye week, which surprisingly emerged when their match against the LA Galaxy was moved to August to accommodate LA's CONCACAF Champions League match, is poorly timed. Two weeks for the team's passionate fans to debate and discuss all these issues--but is there hope?

If you were the team owners, are you worried right now about the future of your franchise? What's your next move?

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