The Last Word on D.C. United vs Columbus Crew: A Template for Success

United and the Crew wrestled to a draw on Saturday night. - Matt Sullivan

It was close to a win, oh so close, until D.C. United gave up a late goal. But, they still left Crew Stadium with a result many fans would have gladly accepted entering the weekend. And they did it using a template we may see the rest of the season.

After conceding another late-game goal on Saturday night, D.C. United narrowly missed a stunning road victory over the Columbus Crew, Major League Soccer's second best team entering the match. The 1-1 result, however, and the disappointment we fans felt in it, showed just how far this team has come since it's opening night loss to the Crew. It also showed a template for how the Black-and-Red, with continued progress, can compete with the league's top teams.

Their Words:

- Steven Goff, via washingtonpost.com: "D.C. United had found its stride at home this month, but questions lingered about this rebuilt MLS club's ability to earn points on the road. United provided a partial answer Saturday night, carrying the lead into the 90th minute before conceding Hector Jimenez's sensational equalizer and settling for a 1-1 draw with the Columbus Crew before 11,437."

- Adam Taylor: "In the end, D.C. got a point on the road from the conference leaders. Perhaps we should look on the bright side and note that the fact that we are unhappy - downright angry - with a draw is such a contrast to 2013, when even a non-embarrassing loss was a step forward. But this one stings - we had three points all but sewn up, and we let two of them get away when there's no reason to have conceded an equalizer."

- Andrew King, via mlssoccer.com: "United snagged the game's first goal against the run of play in the 31st minute, when an uncharacteristically poor first touch from Federico Higuaín gave Nick DeLeon a breakaway behind the Crew midfield. DeLeon found a streaking Espindola to his left, who fired a high shot past Steve Clark. Despite ending the half with 63 percent of possession and the advantage in shots, corner kicks and passing, the Crew showed little venom in the final third, and couldn't find a goal as D.C. seemed content to drop their ranks into defense and defend their lead on the road."

- Dan Karell, via soccerbyives.net: "Even though they were down to ten men, the Columbus Crew were rewarded for their persistence. In a game filled with emotion and intensity that at one point boiled over in the Crew's goalmouth, the Crew battled back thanks to a Hector Jimenez goal in the 90th minute to tie D.C. United, 1-1, on Saturday night at Crew Stadium."

- Ben Olsen, via dcunited.com: "Yeah, I thought it's a good sign to get a point at Columbus. That's what I keep trying to tell myself...I don't think we managed well. I would say we managed it well if we get the second goal...[Columbus is] going to go with their numbers you just have to punch them for it. We didn't do that part. We also didn't possess the ball well and we should have been able to do that, and we didn't do it...Absolutely, this is a good measuring stick for us because of how recent the game was against them...[Columbus] is a team that has been as good as any in the league and we came in here and I thought we had a good game plan but at the end it still hurts...[Fabian Espindola] had a great goal. Whether it's him or somebody else, we have to do better with finishing teams off but Fabi is a special player. He is going to continue to make special plays for this team; [we're] still figuring him out and his teammates are still figuring him out but I am extremely happy we have him and once again tonight he proved to be the game changer."

- Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter, via dcunited.com: On the team's struggles against D.C. United: "It takes two. They had a good game plan, they wanted to press us, they wanted to disrupt our rhythm and, at times, it didn't disrupt us, but at times it did, and it affected us. The goal was a careless play, but I don't get too wrapped up in that though because we're asking the guys to play. We're asking them to take risks, to pass the ball. So we'd lose the ball, and now it's about recovering from losing possession, and [D.C.] did a good job countering and they scored."

- Bobby Boswell, via dcunited.com: "We pride ourselves on keeping zeros. We've done it the last two weeks and I thought this was going to be more of the same. I think we got a little disconnected. Obviously I want to see the video before I talk too much. It was a hell of a shot. It wasn't necessarily a fluke play or a real dumb play that got it. It was a piece of brilliant play from them. We'll look at it from an analytical point and say what could we have done when we have the ball going forward to make sure it doesn't come right back down our throats."

- Gregg Berhalter, via dcunited.com: On Wil Trapp's assist: "That was a real play. That's why he's who he is. That's amazing. First, he recovers off of [Fabian] Espindola, then he takes the ball from him, then he drives I don't know how long, then he makes a pass. That's a real play by a real player."

- Columbus Crew midfielder Hector Jimenez, via dcunited.com: "Before I kicked it, I saw a little gap and I was just happy it went in. We would have loved to have three points tonight, but it's always nice to get one. [D.C. United] did a really good job of sitting back, and they didn't give us much. We were able to keep pushing forward and luckily get a goal."

My Words:

Eight points in four matches is an excellent run of results for D.C. United. Placed within the context of this four-game non-losing streak, the Black-and-Red's draw in Columbus is a perfectly respectable result. For casual MLS fans who didn't watch the game but only saw the final scoreline or read a news story recounting the action (or maybe looked at the match stats on mlssoccer.com), the narrative will likely be D.C. United continues to get results while playing "ugly". For those of us who watched the match, however, we saw an imperfect team play a tactically astute game which led them to the brink of what would have been their first road win in the league since Oct. 6, 2012, when D.C. United defeated Toronto FC on an 88' goal by Hamdi Salihi.

Unfortunately, one of the early-season storylines developing for this D.C. United team is their propensity for giving up late-game goals (goals scored after the 75'). In the first six matches, it's already happened three times with the result being D.C. United has dropped four total points (and we should acknowledge D.C. United has scored one late-game goal of their own).

Date Home Team Visiting Team Goal Scorer Minute Final Result DCU Points Dropped/Gained
8-Mar-14 D.C. United Columbus Crew Federico Higuain (CLB) 90' 0-3 0
29-Mar-14 D.C. United Chicago Fire Quincy Amarikwa (Chi) 82' 2-2 -2
5-Apr-14 D.C. United New England Revolution Chris Rolfe (DCU) 90'+3' 2-0 0
19-Apr-14 Columbus Crew D.C. United Hector Jimenez (CLB) 90' 1-1 -2

We'll keep track of all the late-season goals for and against D.C. United this season, and their impact on total points, to see if this bad luck evens out over the course of the next 28 games, or if the soccer fates have truly destined this to be a theme of 2014.

The Last Word:

Following D.C. United's opening night 3-0 loss to Columbus, many pointed to Saturday's return match in Ohio as a measuring stick game for the team. How far would United progress following that first poor performance and during the ensuing four matches? This past weekend we found out.

Rather than being a team looking like they had never played together, Saturday's D.C. United squad took the field with what played out as a tactically proficient game plan built on their strengths--strong defending, trusted goalkeeping, and all the tools to develop a consistently effective counterattack. Despite descriptions of the game focusing on D.C. United's extreme defensive posture, Olsen opened the game playing toe-to-toe with one of the league's best possession teams. United was never going to win the possession battle in this game, but in the first 30 minutes (immediately preceding Espindola's 31' goal), the possession battle only tilted to the Crew 54%-46%. Following the goal, Columbus completely dominated possession over the final 60 minutes 64%-36%, yet D.C. United was unfortunate not to have gotten at least one more goal on the counter while giving up very few goal-scoring opportunities to the Crew (until the 90', sadly).

For me the lingering question is why D.C. United had such a difficult time finding meaningful possession following the opening goal (and even when up a man). Individually, the team's players have made significant progress since opening night, and Saturday's performance was the best collective team defensive performance we've seen this year. I'll leave it to the writers and commenters on this site who specialize in tactics to analyze what D.C. United must do to consistently find some possession during critical phases of the game. But, if the team can add just enough effective possession to their defensive shape and goalkeeping, while perfecting the counterattack they seem capable of developing, then Saturday night offered a template for how this year's D.C. United side can compete against MLS's and CONCACAF's upper-tier teams.

Next week, D.C. United will be put to the test with the league's best, FC Dallas, coming to RFK Stadium to close out the month of April. What do you expect when the Hoops come to town? Is a counterattacking strategy OK with you if it results in points?

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