The capitulation in Kansas City pulled the rug out from under United fans, players, and even the coaching staff. While a win was far from certain, no one predicted the lifeless showing DC produced. However, such limp performances come with a twisted silver lining: You can't really do much worse. That means you have reason for optimism the next week.
United did indeed improve in 2010's home opener, but still lost 2-0 to an undermanned New England Revolution side. A somewhat encouraging first half saw several chances created, and the Black-and-Red looked more like the attacking side people had expected after a quality preseason. However, halftime came just as DC started to create their best chances of the match, and the home side never got back into gear. Seeing the team become more stagnant in terms of ideas would have been frustrating in any home game, but to have the game end with a two minute double from substitute Kenny Mansally was particularly upsetting.
Referring to the reaction from United fans after the game, both trudging away from RFK and on the web in the days that followed, as "unhappy" seems to sell the level of frustration short. The minority of fans that are ready to fire the coach after every loss have already decided that this season is a disaster, and many more reasonable people are not very far from that kind of reaction either.
I am quite disappointed in DC to this point, but I also am not going to break out my torch and pitchfork. What reasons do I have to hold off on my best Chicken Little impression? What needs to improve right away? The answers to these questions follow the jump.
United came out once again in a 442, with several important changes. Carey Talley moved to right back, while Juan Manuel Peña debuted in central defense alongside Dejan Jakovic. Further forward, teenager Andy Najar was replaced at right midfield by Brandon Barklage. For their part, New England came out looking like this:
That flat 442 often looked like two rows of four defenders, as the Revs sat very deep in hopes to clog the center of the field and slow the pace of the game to a crawl. This worked for the first few minutes, but United eventually started to string some passes together. It was hardly like watching Barcelona or Arsenal, but it was something. As DC had more and more of the ball, the Revs found themselves trying to start their own attacks from further and further in their own end.
Particularly impressive during this stretch of the game were Barklage and Kurt Morsink. Out on the right, Barklage was up against a pretty weak Revolution left flank. As a result, there were multiple gaps to exploit, and Barklage often found himself in space, either due to the inexperience of rookie Seth Sinovic (who is a conversion project at left back) or having used his advantage in speed to evade Chris Tierney. For his part, Morsink was doing a commendable job of anticipating New England's attempts to make outlet passes and start their own attacks. Most of the time, either he or a United defender was able to step forward and comfortably take possession back. Morsink was also doing well at switching the point of attack. When you play a 442 diamond and teams are dropping off deep, your defensive midfielder has to be able to swing the ball so you can continue to spread your opponent's defense. Morsink may have his troubles when put under pressure, but his way of playing against a Revs team that dropped off from the opening kickoff was exactly what you'd want him to do.
For all the good things Barklage and Morsink (as well as the back four) provided, our attack still found itself running into a wall at the top of the box for most of the half. Quaranta didn't play poorly during this spell, but he was often being chased by Pat Phelan and Joseph Niouky; it was probably a wise idea to make sure he wasn't on the ball often, because the Revs would have just swarmed any central position. It's no coincidence that Quaranta's best moments came when he either dropped deep or moved to the right (along with his grasscutting freekick that Preston Burpo saved with a planted leg and a prayer).
Out on the left wing, however, Cristian Castillo saw a lot of the ball but couldn't get anything going. After the game, I came away thinking that he was simply struggling to adjust to MLS. However, upon re-watching the game (yes, this involved tolerating relentless Revs homer Brad Feldman and his penchant for Max Bretos-level overexaggeration as well as Jay Heaps), I'm prepared to take a slightly more forgiving angle to this. In our first game, Castillo faced a narrow field and troublesome conditions for a winger. Everyone in a United shirt was poor that night, so it would have been hard to stand out in any setting. Against New England, Castillo got more favorable conditions but drew a much tougher assignment in opposing right back Kevin Alston. Personally, I think Alston is the best right back in MLS, and between his recovery speed and his tight, physical-but-not-fouling approach to marking, Castillo never got a chance to do much. I'm not saying Castillo does not need to continue his adjustment and improve his play, but I also think a lot of credit has to be given to Alston for shutting him down.
Up top, Jaime Moreno and Chris Pontius played in fits and starts. One attack would feature movement that showed understanding of each other, while the next charge forward would see them occupying the same space or misunderstanding one another. This was exacerbated by Moreno's struggle to pick the times to slow play down and play his passes with a bit more weight. Many fans felt strongly that Moreno ran out of gas in the second half, but I felt that he didn't really play that well before then. I'm not endorsing a benching, but it's clear that Moreno doesn't quite understand what the players around him are going to do, and vice versa.
Pontius, for his part, blew several quality chances. While there was obviously a problem with his finishing, I noticed in watching the game a second time that a large chunk of the problem was his timing. In both the 36th minute and the 43rd minute, a ball came in from the right that really needed to be attacked. Pontius did not pursue these balls with the kind of enthusiasm that he did last year, and the results were that Osei managed to block the first shot out for a corner and that Pontius did not get over top of Barklage's driven cross, thus pushing his header over the bar. Last year, Pontius threw himself at those balls, and if he had arrived a split second earlier he'd have likely scored in both cases. This kind of thing can point to a lack of confidence; perhaps his time with the national team has left him feeling less secure and less familiar with his United teammates?
Moments into the second half, DC fans were given an unfortunate preview of what was to come. Quaranta's pass to Castillo was slightly behind him. Castillo was forced to stop his run, but still had enough space and time to face Alston 1v1 and showcase the dribbling talent we all want to see. Instead of taking a run at Alston, Castillo instead opted to lump in a cross from about 50 yards out, aimed at a well-marked Pontius. The flat pass and the lack of conviction to be aggressive in attack were both early warning signs that, despite being in a 0-0 game, we were starting to get complacent.
The beginnings of both halves were remarkably similar, with neither team able to put together any combinations or use the center of the field offensively. While the Revs never built on this development in the first half thanks to the positive style of defending from United's back line and Morsink, it gave them a bit of life as the second half wore on. In situations that New England would have been defending from within 25 yards of goal in the first half, they had now stepped their lines about 10 yards further forward.
This was an important phase of the game, as the Revs grew in confidence while United never really pushed out of the complacent mindset that they left the locker room with. The worst thing about watching your team and knowing they've gotten complacent is seeing that attitude creep into every facet of the game. Defenders that were once stepping up to cut passes out before they ever became attacks end up hesitating, and all the sudden the Revs are in possession. Perkins came for a corner a bit slowly and ended up flapping at it instead of grabbing it in an assertive manner. These things seem like small, one-off mistakes, but when they start happening at both ends of the field and with some frequency, you're officially no longer playing with the right level of vigor. This is something that DC has been guilty of for a long time; we dominate a team for awhile, but eventually we lose our way and remove our boot from their throat. One of Onalfo's main tasks in the future is going to be developing a more ruthless streak throughout the team, so that we can punish unambitious opponents like New England and then kill them off once they start to make their push for goals.
Eventually, the Revs grew enough in confidence that we were no longer assured of being able to defend them with ease. Kenny Mansally's entry as a sub (and subsequent near miss from 30 yards after Morsink lost the ball under pressure) was a clear signal that New England saw the chance to grab 3 points instead of just taking the 0-0 draw they had clearly shown up to play for. This should have sparked a response from United, but anyone who has seen a team grow a touch overconfident knows how hard it is to shake that malaise off. Soon enough, even Phelan managed to threaten with a well-struck long shot that Perkins had to dive for. Once Mansally put the Revs ahead by pouncing on a twice-deflected cross, the writing was on the wall. Once we were down by a goal, our only chance to pull even was probably on a set piece, since our quality in the run of play had degraded by too much to be a real threat.
One positive note, to me at least, was the play of Peña. True, the Revs didn't really try to attack until the last 20-25 minutes, but part of that came from the fact that Peña was reading the game well and marshaling a defense that has been in need of that kind of leadership for years. While it was Peña that Mansally escaped to score the opening goal, I think it's important to note that the ball in was deflected by both Julius James and Kheli Dube. The James deflection wasn't much of a factor, and the ball had looked like it was headed for Peña. Unfortunately for us, Dube hurled himself at the ball and gave just enough of a flick to play the ball to Mansally. This happened in a split second, and no one could have recovered in time to mark Mansally. Generally speaking, I'd rather have my central defender trying to head balls out of the 6 yard box than stay tight with their man on the longshot chance that such an unlikely header will deflect perfectly. Nine times out of ten, that ball flies to where Peña was. If he abandons that spot to mark up, he's allowing a cross to bounce inside the 6 yard box. My point, basically, is that we should give a lot of credit to Dube for making it to that ball and back off a bit of the criticism of Peña, who had a great 79 minutes up to that point (arguably the only player with any hope of being man of the match ahead of Barklage).
In the end, this was a game that should have been salted away before halftime. With the chances we had, it seems fair to expect us to finish at least two of them off. The Revs didn't have the confidence to be a real goal threat until very late; a couple first half goals would probably have buried them. As much as I've gone on about all sorts of things here, it's like last week in that it's an Occam's Razor kind of solution: Finish our early chances, and we win this game with relative ease.
Easier said than done, right? I imagine that there's a good chance that we could see Danny Allsopp starting up front after both of our forwards left a lot to be desired. Will it be as simple as Moreno or Pontius going to the bench, or would it involve moving Pontius to some midfield role? The more I think about it, the more I am leaning towards the former. Barklage may not be 90 minutes fit, but he should be starting after his strong showing against the Revs. Castillo, meanwhile, will not gain the knowledge of MLS and the confidence he needs to excel by riding the bench. He'll get comfortable with MLS much faster if he's playing than he will on the sidelines. In either case, DC needs to be desperate to get some goals in Philly, because another loss like this will take a long time to recover from.