Three days after the win at Nuevo Estadio Corona, our boys in black returned to the States for the home stretch of preseason. In the opening match of the 2010 Carolina Challenge Cup, United came from behind to beat defending MLS Cup champions Real Salt Lake 2-1. Both DC goals were scored by Jaime Moreno in the second half, after RSL had taken the lead on a Robbie Findley penalty kick in the 40th minute.
As with all preseason games, it's more important to have learned a lesson or two rather than bang in a ton of goals (this game, for example, was probably more valuable than the 5-2 win by our reserves over Florida Gulf Coast University). Curt Onalfo, in all probability, will be weighing the performances against RSL and Toronto FC (Wednesday night, 7:15ish pm) more than he has any other matches in preseason. Other than Juan Manuel Peña, Onalfo is probably not measuring trialists as anything other than depth.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts about what we saw Saturday evening:
United came out with just one change (Allsopp starting instead of Pontius) from the team that beat Santos Laguna 3-2:
At this point, it seems relatively safe to think that this is what Onalfo sees as his best team at this point. Clyde Simms will recover from his meniscus surgery to retake the defensive midfield spot from Morsink, and Bryan Namoff recently tweeted that he is going to Charleston, which is hopefully one more step in his recovery towards reclaiming his right back position.
However, until those two are fully fit, Onalfo needs to be comfortable with their replacements. Morsink may not offer the dynamism that Simms does, or clog lanes as intelligently, but he's more comfortable on the ball. That ability to spray passes around will add a different wrinkle to our approach and will help with possession, even if it comes with a hit defensively. Onalfo has repeatedly talked about being an attack-minded coach, and choosing someone like Morsink over, say, John DiRaimondo would bolster that claim.
Of course, Morsink might have more competition if Devon McTavish wasn't currently the most likely stand-in for Namoff at right back. I've always thought that McTavish would do well at right back, but with Namoff a rock there, he's had to feature as a utility player. McTavish has lots of potential competition for this spot right now, with Lawson Vaughn, Lyle Adams, and Jordan Graye all trying to ensure themselves a spot on the team. If McTavish does indeed hold onto this spot, and Adams ends up signing, we could end up seeing Vaughn and Graye both being released to make room for other players.
Moving on to RSL, they sent out more or less a first choice team:
That's a somewhat similar formation to our own, though Grabavoy and Johnson pinch further in than our wide players do. It also only differs from the 2009 MLS Cup-winning team in just two spots: Fabian Espindola is in for the departed Yura Movsisyan, and Ned Grabavoy starts ahead of Andy Williams.
Despite the close-to-final-product lineups fielded by both teams, the game got off to a sluggish start. Both sides seemed content to try to find their own rhythm, which at this point in the year means little in the way of excitement or playing at a high speed. RSL seemed to want to exploit their speed up top, which is what they did last year, while we seemed slightly more interested in possession. Neither approach generated much offense; Moreno curled a 24th minute shot wide, while RSL was flagged offside multiple times.
RSL would take the lead before halftime via a somewhat soft penalty (even RSL's twitter account felt the need to put quotes around the phrase "taken down"). Grabavoy beat Morsink to the ball, ended up on the ground, and the ref pointed to the spot. Robbie Findley had no problem converting the penalty, as he sent Perkins the wrong way to make it 1-0 in the 40th minute.
At halftime, there both teams made one sub. RSL brought on trialist forward Cristiano for Findley, while United Academy player Andy Najar came in at right midfield for Brandon Barklage. Najar managed to look like someone who belonged amongst professional players, especially in terms of his control on the ball and in not being overawed by the occasion. No one wants to put undue pressure on the kid, but if you're appearing this often in preseason (while other players are on trials), you've got some hope of making the team. Don't be surprised if Najar joins Bill Hamid on our developmental roster at some point this year. The kid can play.
DC came into the game a bit more after halftime, with possession looking a bit sharper due to crisper passes and a more focused mindset. McTavish put in a quality cross for Allsopp, whose header forced Rimando into a top notch save just moments into the half, while Nat Borchers had to do very well to beat Moreno to a cross by Castillo in the 50th minute. Quaranta was also starting to get more involved, most notably chipping a ball into the box that caused a promising scramble before RSL could clear.
Ultimately, however, the hour or so of both teams fielding close to their best sides ended with a flurry of RSL subs. United responded with just one move, bringing Julius James in for Peña at center back. From here, I'd say that the number of times RSL went offside (and it was a lot) is an argument in Peña's favor. RSL does run offside a lot against pretty much everyone, but for a new defender to come in to an unfamiliar team and suss that out after the first few minutes against an unknown opponent is a plus.
He's also as comfortable on the ball as you'd expect from a guy with so much experience in Spain and in CONMEBOL. I'm in total agreement with the Fullback Files about the potential for Peña and Jakovic to be MLS's premier center backs in terms of being on the ball. As any MLS observer knows, most MLS center backs would prefer their relationship with the ball to consist mainly of thumping the ball as far away from their goal as possible, and as quickly as possible to boot. However, if DC wants to value possession, having defenders who are not scared to death of the ball is vital. At this point, I am close to declaring myself sold on Peña. He plays the game the right way, and while he'll probably only be able to provide one or two good MLS seasons, that's still plenty of time to find a long-term partner for Jakovic (or give James the seasoning and knowledge he needs to be that guy).
Back to the game at hand: Rather predictably, the RSL second-choice group needed time to come to grips with the game, while United had overcome their slow start and were arguably playing their best soccer of the night to that point. DC continued to keep control of the game, while RSL continued to keep the linesman active by running offside.
After replacing Allsopp with Adam Cristman in the 68th minute, United finally turned what was starting to look like an offense vs. defense drill into a goal. Quaranta ran onto a McTavish pass, but managed only a soft attempt to roll the ball past Rimando. However, Rimando's attempted block ended up rolling straight to Moreno, who lobbed his old teammate from outside the box and into the undefended RSL goal. Lucky, to be sure, but DC had been banging on the door for awhile, so I doubt anyone in black felt too sheepish about it.
Los Capitalinos smelled blood in the water, and Rodney Wallace just barely missed Moreno (possibly Cristman...hard to tell on a streaming feed) just moments after the goal with a cross from the left. However, on the ensuing Quaranta corner (delayed long enough for Boyzzz Khumalo to replace Castillo), James managed to get a glancing header in front of his marker, and the ball spun to Moreno at the back post. #99 had to react quickly to shoot a foot out in time to direct the ball past Rimando and in. It was not exactly pretty, but I think we'd all agree this team needed to be more ruthless last year no matter what kind of chance we're talking about.
It's also very much worth noting that the first team has produced a goal from a corner kick in three straight games (Jakovic vs. USA u-17s, Pontius vs. Santos, and now Moreno vs. RSL). It's fascinating to me that, despite not having a particularly gifted corner taker last year or this year, we're starting to make these chances count thanks to having bigger, stronger, more fearless players. Sometimes, it's much less about the delivery than it is about simply winning the battle of wills with the man marking you. Guys like Jakovic, James, Namoff, and Pontius all have strong leaping ability, and they have enough desire to win these headers against guys that don't normally get beaten in the air. It might not be the sexiest attribute to have on your team, but any winning side anywhere in the world will have things like this happening. It's not a guarantee, mind you, but it's certainly something to keep in mind.
United's next game is on Wednesday against Toronto, a team we've already seen this preseason. Seeing as how TFC provided the feed for Saturday's game, I'd suspect this game will also be available to watch online. I'm looking forward to seeing more of Peña, as well as seeing minutes for trialists like Adams and Daniel Woolard, as well as Danny Szetela (I assume he's fit enough to play at least some portion of a game in this tournament). We're very close to final cuts, and these are among the final chances for players to make their impression without having to force Onalfo into waiving someone or breaking up an established starting team.