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Post-post-match (Week 1): How to lose an MLS game 4-0

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My artistic interpretation of the season opener (via <a href="http://www.theonion.com/articles/iraq-war-5-years-later,16753/">theonion.com</a>, with some touches from the author)
My artistic interpretation of the season opener (via theonion.com, with some touches from the author)

You've seen Shatz's piece while emotions were still high after what can only be referred to as a massively disappointing season opener. 4-0? At Kansas City?! The same team whose attempt to rebuild has involved signing players from leagues well below the standard in MLS? The same team who just changed captains on the eve of the season? The same team whose coach picked up just 12 points in 12 games last year?

Yes, all of these things are true. It was appalling and infuriating stuff to watch. However, this "post-post-match" feature will be coming a day or two later for a reason. The idea here is to let the emotions (negative and, hopefully, positive) cool off and be a bit more objective. It's hard to analyze the gritty details of why a game was a disaster/was glorious when you're still shouting with rage/glee.

If you're brave enough to think more about this sickening performance, follow me past the jump.

Before the game actually kicked off, there were three red flags in the starting lineup. Devon McTavish unavailable due to a hamstring strain and Julius James had been sick all week, so Curt Onalfo was left to choose between bailing on the 442 or fielding people out of position. While I suppose I should be thankful that the days of the 3412 were not continued, it was no surprise to see a back four featuring Clyde Simms (who is not a defender) and Carey Talley (who probably hadn't learned everyone's name yet) struggle. While the start for Talley was expected, I had been hoping James would be fit enough to play centrally. Talley is the smarter and more experienced player, but tossing a guy who just stepped off the plane into a defensive role is always a problem.

Meanwhile, with Simms in a position he's not good at, we were obliged to start Kurt Morsink in defensive midfield. While the thought of using Morsink does not upset me if we're the team in control of the match, it clearly did not work out with us on the defensive. Before the season, I said that Morsink is a better possession player than Simms, and I stand by that despite Morsink's turnovers. The reason Morsink turned the ball over so often wasn't a failure of technique. He was simply under too much pressure and made poor decisions. Technique doesn't do you much good if you don't know which moment to thread a pass back and when to just hit the ball into space upfield. Simms, despite looking jumpy on the ball, generally knows what to do in a given situation. Morsink, quite obviously, still has work to do in this department.

The final issue was the decision to start Andy Najar at right midfield. Najar has deservedly gotten a lot of press for being signed out of the academy and looking like he belonged with the senior team as a 17 year old. That's all well and good, but United is coming off 2 straight seasons of what our fans and organization refer to as failure. When you change coaches, and get rid of a lot of longtime veterans, you are signaling the beginning of a new era. What you do not want to do is make strange tactical decisions that look like they're straight out of the previous, departed coach's handbook. It's not that Najar was particularly bad; it was that the season opener, on a super-narrow and rain-soaked field, against a team hungry to impress their fans after being even worse than we were last year, is not the time to blood a youngster. I am a big fan of risk-taking in soccer, but sometimes it's best to make the obvious decision. Najar did have probably the single best moment of any United player (his shot off the bar), but he was also nervous defensively and did very little to help the defense slow Ryan Smith on the Wizards' left. Ultimately, he struggled to impact the game in either direction. At the very least, I think a feisty display from Brandon Barklage would have helped more. Boyzzz Khumalo might also have worked out better, since his speed would have given him a hope of keeping up with Ryan Smith. Najar will still be worth considering in the team, but this was not the moment for such a move.

As for the game itself, I'm reading a wide variety of thoughts on what went wrong. Generally, it appears to be focused on defending and distribution, both of which were indeed unacceptable. However, I'd argue that both were signs of an overall trend present in most of the players we fielded. Throughout the game, I found myself unable to stop thinking of two words: "Focus" and "intensity." Our defending and distribution were the symptoms of a team that was not tuned in to getting the basics right, and was not ready to fight another team for 3 points, the ball, space, or anything else.

Sometimes, we overthink soccer. Smart coaches get too caught up in the cerebral aspects of tactical play, or psychology, or any number of things, and end up doing something idiotic. Similarly, as fans, we assume that the explanation for our team's failures is something beyond our understanding. Perhaps there's a concept of defending space we don't get, or a quirk of technique in an opposing player that we never noticed that prompted a change in formation. This is not one of those situations. This one was simply an illustration that, in MLS, the team whose players are paying closer attention to getting the little things right, and play with more desire, is the team that wins. MLS is not full of clever tactical adjustments or scheme-breaking players. Desire and avoiding stupidity will take you far.

When I mentioned focus earlier, what I mean is the attention to detail. I'm not talking about the complicated things, like remembering what set piece your opponent plays when the corner taker raises his left hand or anything like that. What I mean is stuff like staying close enough to your man to win a tackle, or playing your passes crisply enough so that they get where they're going. Simple stuff, really. United came out and were lackadaisical in every aspect of the game. The Wizards, on the other hand, made sure that they got their basics correct. Even if a pass ended up being into someone clearly marked too well to do something with it, it was at least struck with the right weight to get to where it was going. Players going in for tackles may have missed, but they were at least near enough to their man to attempt a tackle. The little details get you into position to do the big things you need to do to win a game. DC didn't give themselves a platform to start from, while Kansas City did. The Wizards were better than I thought they'd be, but not anywhere near enough to have beaten a coherent team 4-0. The scoreline was a reflection of how poor we were on a basic, simple level.

To illustrate this point, one doesn't need to wade deep into the game. Just over 5 minutes in, Smith moved from near midfield to in on goal with just two passes. What happened? A slew of basic mistakes, that's what. Both Jakovic and Morsink were out of position. Making this worse, the player they were both nearest (Josh Wolff) ended up successfully creating the chance. Najar did little to slow Smith's charge other than a half-hearted attempt at stepping in his path. Simms stayed way too wide, opening up the gap for Smith to run through. Talley turned his back to the play far too early.

Following a kick-save from Perkins, the unfocused play continued. Simms could have cleared the ball to Castillo, but opted to pass to Morsink (both players in the DC box) instead. Morsink still had Castillo, but tried to fake out Arnaud to jam a pass to Najar on the still-crowded right wing. Arnaud blocked that pass, and Perkins ended up having to make an even better save from Jewsbury's 20 yard attempt moments later.

This sequence more or less summed up the game. Players in blue were tuned in and did basic things correctly, while those in white were not thinking quickly and not paying enough attention to what was happening around them. This is how you end up being dominated by a team that doesn't even have an identity as a group yet. When your opponent is mentally in first gear the whole night, who cares if you're in a new formation and dealing with new teammates? You can just play very simple soccer and make it look brilliant, because the other team is there only in a physical sense.

Moving on to our intensity, it was obviously low. Literally anyone could have watched that game and told you which team wanted it more. The second goal was probably the most painful example of this. A long ball out of the back found Smith surrounded by Jakovic, Talley, and Wallace. No one had the desire to challenge for the ball, even though Smith himself was just waiting for it to land. Wallace and Talley stood idly by, leaving Smith with just one active pursuer in Jakovic. The 1v3 became a 1v1, and Smith held the ball long enough to find Arnaud, who had gone totally unmarked by Najar, Simms, Morsink, or Quaranta (all players that should have been close enough to see the run and do something about it).

United displayed no real desire to put a stop to this or most other Kansas City attacks. If such desire was present, it certainly was a far weaker feeling than the desire present in the Wizards team. Whether it was breaking up plays, winning loose balls, making runs, or shooting, everything DC did had less conviction than everything Kansas City did. MLS is a league of parity, and oftentimes the difference between teams is how fully they throw themselves into the tasks at hand. On this night, the Wizards looked hungry for the fight, while United looked like a team having a light pre-practice kickaround.

Most of this article is about either mental attributes or defending, and that's because we did so little going forward. Pontius and Moreno (and Allsopp in the 2nd half) had little time to operate as a duo, because they saw little of the ball and little help from their teammates. While the Wizards would stream forward to get numbers into the attack, United's forwards were often going 2v6 or 2v7, and trying to dribble away from a pack of markers. One sequence in the second half was telling: Kansas City went at us 7v5, and no one from DC ever got back to help those numbers. We fortunately escaped, and our attempted counter was 2v4, quickly 2v6, and then we lost the ball. Whether our players were simply disinterested in doing the running needed (intensity) or were all waiting for someone else to do something (focus), we were destined to fail.

What would I change for next week? Hopefully Pena's paperwork will be finished, so he can marshal this group from the back.  Right back will probably go to Devon McTavish if he's fit. If not, it will depend on New England's injury report. If the Revolution are going to start the slower Chris Tierney on the left as they did in their loss to LA, we might be able to use Talley there. If Kenny Mansally is good to go, however, Talley is something of a risky play because he's much slower than the Revolution's usual starter on the left.

The bigger thing, however, is that Curt Onalfo, the rest of the coaching staff, and the veterans on the field have to find a way to make sure we're ready to take the field. It's impossible to know for sure whether Onalfo simply hasn't figured out how to push the team's buttons yet, or if the players themselves just failed to heed his words and expected an easy win. Likely, it's some combination of these two things. I would expect Steve Nicol to put our group psychology to the test on April 3rd by trying to jump on us early via direct play and generally robust challenges.

To close this up, I'm going to compare our showing to San Jose (who were mauled 3-0 by Real Salt Lake). It was easy to say what was wrong with San Jose. They have bad players, and a coach who doesn't know how to make them better or hide their weaknesses. RSL took them apart by simply having more talent. Our game, however, gave me little insight to how good our players are, because we didn't even play hard enough to lose because we sucked. That's a little convoluted, but I hope my meaning comes through. San Jose and RSL both played hard, and RSL won because they're better by quite a bit. We didn't even come out to play, so who knows what we're actually capable of?