After a truly dire showing in Kansas City, DC United got better in week 2 at home against New England. Unfortunately, poor finishing left the Revolution in the game, and they eventually got the bounce they needed (followed by a golazo that just rubbed it in our faces). Still, there was reason to hope that United had figured enough out in that game and in the training sessions that followed to expect more than just a decent showing on our first-ever trip to Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, the Union opened the MLS season by losing 2-0 at Seattle. Their lineup was puzzling, the scoreboard did not reflect Seattle's dominance, and a Philly starter from that game had been cut by the time the DC bus pulled into the Lincoln Financial Field parking lot. This appeared to be the perfect game for United to score some goals, defend solidly, and pick up their first three points of 2010.
Instead, the first half brought back memories of the ineptitude seen during DC's fruitless five game homestand last fall. After halftime, some changes were made and United made a brief fightback. One could be forgiven for thinking that, after 225+ minutes of MLS play and a long preseason, DC had finally put things together. Instead, leveling the score in extremely fortunate fashion appeared to be enough. United bogged down again, and only minutes later our best defender was being red carded, our prized new goalkeeper was lining up behind his own wall for no apparent reason, and Philly was on their way to a first-ever win.
Finding a bright side to this one is difficult, but there were a couple things that pointed towards improvement. No, I'm not crazy. See my sanity after the jump.
A lot has been made of the Black-and-Red's struggles in front of goal, in turning possession into danger, and in between the sticks. However, I think the first problem that needs addressing is something more simple. At Kansas City, United started in slow motion and never recovered. At home against the Revs, DC took about 15 minutes to come into the game against an opponent that was desperate to bog the game down and needed to stay at 0-0 as long as possible. In Philly, it was more of the same. United was simply not awake when the game kicked off, and Philly came charging out of the gates.
They say that three times is a pattern, so at this point it's not just tough luck or some kind of anomaly. Barely a minute into the game, we were "treated" to a fine example of DC's inability to mentally engage in the game when it starts. Cristian Castillo was given the ball in a promising position, but chose a first touch that left him stopped in his tracks. Sebastien Le Toux had enough time to get into a defensive position, and eventually Castillo turned himself into a double team that saw Roger Torres walk away with the ball. Castillo could have either taken an aggressive first touch, to charge towards a large gap in the Union defense opened by Rodney Wallace's overlap, or play Wallace in behind Cristian Arrieta. Instead, he couldn't make a quick decision, and the chance was gone.
This early inaction also serves to more or less sum up our offensive woes. On each thrust forward, individual players are taking too long to make a decision. Even when our other players are doing the right things to give the man on the ball options, we see people freeze up, or take that extra touch. While Castillo has largely been guilty of this time and again, he's not the only guilty party. It seems like each possession wasted features a different person that kills the play. This kind of inconsistency, spread throughout a team, is extremely demoralizing. If Wallace makes that 50 yard sprint three times only to see it be wasted by indecisive teammates, he's eventually going to ask himself "Why bother?"
Curt Onalfo needs to find a way to get through to all eleven starters that every game is 90 minutes, from the opening whistle to the final whistle. I would be curious to know from up close what the team's warm-up routine is like, and what's being said in the locker room before games. Onalfo has to find a way to use these times to encourage his team to be focused and ready to play. As a player's coach, it's hard to imagine Onalfo using fear in this kind of situation. Players aren't going to buy Onalfo trying to create a players vs. coach, Herb Brooks-style dynamic. However, even something as simple as a casual slight could galvanize some of our more lackadaisical players into dialing in (even if it's just to prove Onalfo wrong). There are probably warm-up drills that encourage being competitive as well. I'm just speculating here, but there has to be something that can be done to get every player ready to play from the start.
Moving on, one player that seems particularly unfocused is Troy Perkins. Perkins is a rather conservative keeper when it comes to staying on his line, but any keeper of his size should be beating Le Toux to the cross that set up the first goal. Yes, there's something to be said about set piece marking (Peña can be seen gesturing for someone to mark Le Toux; Barklage was nearest but did nothing, while Jakovic moved a few steps forward to cover empty space), but Perkins should be able to reach above Le Toux and punch the ball away. Hell, even if he'd have flapped at it, he'd have blocked Le Toux from getting to it as well. As for the game-winner...we've all seen the picture that says everything. On my old indoor team, I was the third-choice keeper, and even I knew not to stand behind my own wall.
Finally, looking at our forwards, we're still struggling to put balls in the back of the net. Despite a truly awful first half, Philly handed us a glorious opportunity to score in first-half stoppage time. Castillo's corner delivery was crisp, Allsopp stopped early to shake his defender, but the finish was very poor considering the gaping hole on the Union goal line between Philly's man on the post and the flat-footed Chris Seitz. Seeing it again is all the more painful. That should have stolen all the momentum out from under the Union, but we let them off the hook. There isn't a quick fix to poor finishing, as anyone who has watched Chad Barrett can tell you. United fans need to hope that Allsopp and (especially) Pontius are simply in poor form, and that this is simply an instance of waiting for the dam to burst.
So what, exactly, did go right? The more simple item on that list was that, for the first time this season, United showed a prolonged ability to fight back. The second half was far from brilliant, but there did appear to be some anger and some drive to DC's play after halftime. This might seem like an extremely minor triumph, but at KC we were listless throughout. Against the Revs, we became rather disinterested once it became apparent that New England would not be rolling over and handing us a goal simply because we had the ball more than they did. We might not have gotten everything right, but any sustained period of United players trying to make things happen rather than simply waiting for it to fall in their laps is a step forward.
The other thing was that, at long last, Onalfo switched our midfield to an alignment that makes more sense given the personnel. Here was our formation after halftime:
If you've been reading this blog with any frequency, you will recall that a formation with Quaranta on the wing and Barklage in the middle is something that Shatz and I have both called for. Playing Quaranta in the middle takes our best midfielder in terms of attacking play and forces him to play a role that is both unfamiliar and not suited to his skill set. I'm not going to pretend that Barklage and Morsink are an MLS Cup-winning central midfield duo, but as a combative pair, you could do worse.
In this formation, the idea is to win central midfield with endeavor and simple play, and let your wide men break your opponents down. Quaranta loves to cut in off the flank, making him a tricky person to cope with for left backs. Pontius is adept at this as well, but tends to hug the touchline instead. That's great, because having them on the flanks gives us two different looks (rather than being a team that always looks to get wide and hook in crosses, or having too many people trying to pinch into the middle). I don't think making this switch permanent will lead directly to a lengthy winning streak, but I do think it gives us a much better chance to win games than wasting Quaranta in central midfield does.
The other thing notable about that switch was that Castillo was the man to make way for Moreno. I was very enthusiastic about Castillo coming aboard, but it's impossible to deny that he's been a disappointment thus far. Not only is he struggling to find his way in MLS, but he seems desperately low on confidence. Any player that relies on going 1v1 at fullbacks has to have loads of confidence, or they tend to second-guess themselves and lose the ball. Castillo hasn't even been engaging people with his array of stepovers and other moves; instead, he dallies on the ball before either laying it off, getting stripped, or attempting a hopeful cross.
Onalfo needs to find a way to boost Castillo's self-belief, but in the meantime he also has to start someone else for the good of the team. I still believe that Pontius will become a good goalscorer, but right now he's also suffering from a lack of belief in front of goal. The good news is that Pontius doesn't need confidence in his finishing ability to succeed as a wide player. He'll still be a difficult assignment thanks to his athletic ability, and his skill on the ball makes him a threat both as a crosser and as part of a quick passing combination. Not only could Pontius improve our play on the left, but if he does well, it's likely to help his self-belief (which will in turn make him a more likely scorer if he moves back up top).
Ultimately, United is still having to figure out its best eleven, and has yet to show the kind of focus real games demand. This team still strikes me as a team in preseason mode, but we're already a tenth of the way through the season. "Reset button" refers to starting this season over, starting with our upcoming game against Chicago. We've had a disastrous start, but the MLS season is long. Even with the playoffs being harder than ever to get into, there are still enough games to recover from the fact that our first steps were all onto rakes. The changes made in the second half amount to a reset, but if we've got to hit the button again, it'll be time to start eyeing up 2011 draft picks.