After the 2-0 home loss to New York, Curt Onalfo gave an old-school "take a knee" coach's speech at training, in which the message was "we're close." I can't be the only person who was alarmed when I heard that. Imagine my surprise, then, when the news came out the next day that Santino Quaranta and Troy Perkins were both likely going to find themselves on the bench for Kansas City's visit to RFK Stadium.
I had my misgivings. You don't tell the team they're close to putting things together and then bench the most established starters on the roster, right? It wasn't so much the benching of both players (since they've both been way below any reasonable expectation one would have for guys with caps for the national team), but telling them that things were going well and then benching them. A pretty clear picture of the team we'd be starting against the Wizards had emerged, but I was more concerned about the mentality of the team given the bad start being followed up by bizarre mixed messages.
So what happened? Onalfo chose pretty much the most blue-collar, no-frills lineup he could select given the number of injured players that were unavailable, and they outfought Kansas City for a 2-1 win. Danny Allsopp grabbed the first two goals of his MLS career, Bill Hamid made several big saves on the way to a record-setting win, and United finally had 3 points in the standings.
So why am I not exactly thumping my chest with pride? We just beat a team that, only weeks ago, slaughtered us 4-0. That's a big improvement! Not so fast, my friends...
Let's start with the good news since there's been so little of it this season. Onalfo didn't just change the team back to a very standard 442; he changed most of the tactical requirements for all of the offensive positions. Neither striker had to drop off and be a playmaker, neither winger had to cut in, and everyone was absolved of having to string together 10+ quick passes in tight spaces to pry open the opposing back four.
With simpler roles and more workmanlike players, DC forced Kansas City to do something other than clog the middle, wait for the inevitable turnover, and break forward with speed. That's been the recipe on how to defend United home and away for years now. Instead, the Wizards were stuck having to cope with a barrage of long balls, unsavory physical battles with Adam Cristman and Danny Allsopp, and wingers chasing early balls into space. In short, we looked like a (much?) lower-quality version of the Houston Dynamo. Even if Peter Vermes saw it coming after reading all the chatter online, he didn't have a back four capable of pushing aside a pretty uncomplicated, straightforward method of attacking.
Pushing aside any concerns we might have about playing better soccer than everyone else (Kevin Payne was right; we have not earned the right to play that way), the players that best exemplified this sea change were Allsopp, Cristman, and Khumalo. Allsopp did exactly what strikers are supposed to do when you're playing direct and waiting for your opponent to screw up. Every time KC gave him an opening or handed us the ball, Allsopp turned it into a shot or a goal. Too often, we've wasted these gifts because we want to play so slowly that we allow teams to recover. On Wednesday, what we saw instead was summed up by our second goal: A mistake, a pass, a goal.
Plenty of credit on that goal goes to Cristman, who was rightfully lavished with praise for his admirable work rate and his willingness to really battle with people all night long. Cristman is no technical marvel; he's never going to place a lob onto someone's feet, and he'll score very few goals that are ever called "audacious." That doesn't mean he's a bad player. On the contrary, Cristman seems to know exactly who he is as a player and what that requires to be a success at this level. Cristman will never be able to get away with a lazy game, or even a lazy few minutes, because coaches can't say "Well, he might turn the game with one glorious play." This may read like an indictment, but my point is that Cristman is a player that some other guys on the team would do well to imitate. We have some players that believe they're good enough to get away with taking plays off, and that is categorically untrue. The resulting style of play is not my cup of tea, but I'd much rather have 11 Cristmans and win than see us continue to outpossess people and lose every week. If he's not the first name on Onalfo's team sheet after Simms (who, it should be said, has played some of his best soccer in a DC shirt since returning), then something is seriously amiss.
Khumalo also deserves some praise, even if he didn't factor in the goals. We all know that Khumalo is a bundle of energy who is as likely to run down a blind alley as he is to maintain possession or put in a good cross. However, given the emphasis on hard work, covering lots of ground, and overall athleticism, Khumalo is a likely starter on this team for the foreseeable future. Khumalo is a pain to defend against, because he's always looking to run at people, and he never stops running hard. He's not the best defender, sure, but work rate isn't only a defensive quality. If you've played as a defender at any point, you've surely come up against a Khumalo at some point. You know he's not the best guy you've ever marked, but you can never sleep on him because he's always trying to find a way to make something work. If Quaranta were in form, I'd be strongly advocating Khumalo on the left in place of Castillo; similarly, whenever Chris Pontius returns, I'd love to see what we look like with Boyzzz and Party Boy as our wingers.
Moving back, I was pleased with Rodney Wallace for the first time this season. I don't think he was as good as Shatz is saying, but I do think he was clearly playing at a higher standard than he has all year. He won headers, he left few massive gaps, and his communication with Carey Talley was good enough that both Ryan Smith and Chance Myers failed to create much attacking our left flank. Wallace should consider this game his baseline performance; there's still lots of room for improvement, but if he's at least this good, we can focus on some of our other shortcomings.
Finally, I have no choice but to mention Bill Hamid, who showed tremendous reflexes on several occasions to preserve our lead. Given our habit of being shaky in the back, I wouldn't have been too surprised to see Hamid freeze up or hesitate before going for a save or coming off his line. Instead, we saw that Hamid is both a great shotstopper (for any age) and possesses a high degree of maturity and bravery for someone his age.
With that out of the way, I think it's important to keep all of this in perspective. Kansas City controlled more of the game than we did, mostly because they had a midfield full of smart players with good touch. As a result, we spent a lot of the game chasing the ball rather than attacking. It is encouraging that we only allowed 3 or 4 real chances against a team that had more of the ball, but we shouldn't pretend that this is a good Wizards side. KC plays high pressure because they have to; a hectic game favors them because it forces both teams to have less time on the ball and less time to think. If we're going to be outpossessed by the Wizards at home, imagine what our visit to Rio Tinto Stadium will look like.
There were big issues in the attacking end, despite the two goals. While Allsopp buried his chances and Cristman ran his socks off, we have to acknowledge the fact that our goals came entirely from big mistakes by KC defenders. The second goal would be unforgivable in your local pickup game, even if Allsopp did have to do well to hit a powerful, low shot past Jimmy Nielsen. The first goal also contained several errors. First, Escobar shouldn't have allowed the ball to bounce. Then, he should have initiated contact with Allsopp rather than the other way around. Finally, Conrad should have stepped much closer to Allsopp than he did, which gave the Aussie more than enough room to get a hard shot off. Vermes was right to call out his team for essentially handing us a 2 goal lead on a platter. I'm glad we took advantage, but more often than not we're going to have to find goals without having the other team create them for us.
While there are some obvious issues with United's ability to play with both speed and quality at the same time, I think there are two changes that need to be made as soon as possible. This won't come as a shock to anyone, but I think we're going to struggle as long as our most attacking central midfielder is Kurt Morsink and while Castillo continues to struggle mightily with the intense early pressure that every MLS team uses. Morsink once again spent most of his time being overzealous on his tackles and jawing with referee Alex Prus than he did creating anything. This is puzzling, because Morsink has displayed some quality when it comes to switching the point of attack (both in the accuracy of his passes and in terms of timing) and should be able to get himself into better positions once we move forward. Instead, he stays home too often when we need that late runner coming in to cause chaos. He's also a turnover machine whenever pressure is applied, which looks like it comes from being unable to think fast enough. Some of this is simply not picking which option to pass to fast enough, and some of it is a more alarming tendency to not get his head up and look around while he's got the ball. In either case, I find myself longing for Andy Najar (a fighter with more attacking quality), Brandon Barklage (a combative player who doesn't intentionally hack people or fight with refs all the time), Steven King (probably our best option to score goals from central midfield) or even Pontius as the partner for Simms in central midfield. Obviously all four are either unavailable or still fitting into the team right now, but the clock ought to be ticking on Morsink's time as a starter.
Looking at Castillo is also upsetting. I was very big on his signing after seeing his quality in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. It wasn't just his excellent play against the United States; he looked good against Mexico and Costa Rica as well. I saw a guy with tremendous ability with the ball at his feet, a hard shot, and a good knowledge of how to get to the back post to become a scoring threat. I did picture him having an adjustment period, but what we're seeing now is a player that is nowhere close to being a good MLS player. I don't recall seeing Castillo beat any defender on the dribble thus far, he rarely gets into good crossing positions, and he's struggled to even adequately support the rest of the team by being a reasonable outlet. His freekick from somewhere on C St. that smashed against the post was glorious, but one good moment (that came to nothing) in seven games is simply not good enough. Most of the same players that could replace Morsink could also come in for Castillo. Najar, Barklage, and Pontius could play there, or on the right with Khumalo switching wings. We could also bring Quaranta back in when he recovers from an infected hair follicle that required hospitalization, again with Khumalo going to the left. I hate to change a winning team after we went 0-5, but we're going to continue having problems in midfield until either Castillo gets it together or someone else is starting ahead of him.
In the back, my main problem was with Graye. Going up against Ryan Smith was a tough assignment (though the Wizards did cut Graye some slack whenever they switched Smith to the right and sent Myers down the left instead), but that's not really the issue. My main issues with Graye were that he didn't stay connected with Pena and Khumalo (leaving too much space in between them) and that he gave the ball away repeatedly, often under no pressure. Graye's a project, obviously, but on most nights our opponent would have ruthlessly exploited both of these problems and we'd be talking about a 4-2 loss instead of a 2-1 win. It must be said: Kansas City played quite poorly throughout the game, and that had a big hand in us winning. I'm not necessarily inclined to say Graye needs to sit, especially since Brek Shea looked lively against Houston. Graye's starting right now because he's beating McTavish in practice, and his speed probably makes him our best bet to cope with Shea (who has little skill but is good at turning his 1v1 battles into a challenge of strength and speed, and he's got tons of both). I certainly wouldn't want to stick Talley out there, for example. However, in my eyes Graye needs to work very hard on his positioning (it would probably help if he spent a lot of time talking to Pena, Talley, or even made some phone calls to Bryan Namoff) and think faster when on the ball. If we want to see the cost of defenders turning the ball over, we should look no further than Escobar in this very game. Further, if we allow a lot of crosses down our right side, we're going to have a hard time keeping opposing strikers from feasting on headers. Even if James is put back into the lineup, we'll still have a size and strength issue in the air, so our outside backs have to be solid.
Finally, in an opinion that will probably make me unpopular, I am struggling to get the over-the-top praise of Hamid. Yes, his point-blank saves were impressive. However, I think we were given a big break by the Wizards, who gave him precious few tough decisions to make. Goalkeeping isn't just about making saves; it's about playing angles and knowing when to do a certain thing and when not to. Hamid's first touch on the ball, let's not forget, was to turn a standard easy catch into a high, looping ball towards no United player; luckily for us, absolutely no one was there, or KC is shooting at an open net. I also thought he should have been closer to his near post on the goal. The angles of the cross and Kamara's approach ensured that the shot was either going near post or not going on frame at all. It was an avoidable goal. Actually, to go one further, if Perkins had allowed it, people would be up in arms.
I know, I'm being tough on the kid when he did come in, make big saves, and get a win. I try to look at these things from an opposing coach's point of view. If I'm Schellas Hyndman, I'm telling my midfielders and defenders to play as many balls as possible in between the defense and Hamid, and I'm hoping my wingers aim their crosses into the area between the penalty spot and the top of the 6 yard box. Anything that will force Hamid into a snap judgment, I'm trying to do. Hamid can undoubtedly make highlight reel saves, so my approach would be to see if he can do the more mundane stuff like catching crosses, or communicating well enough with a defender when they're shielding a ball back to him.
In summary, I think this was a sloppy game for both teams. United won because we came with a lot of energy and fight, and most importantly because we took advantage of Kansas City's mistakes more than the Wizards did ours. We were all told that it wouldn't be pretty, and it was not at all. For the time being, winning ugly is fine; beggars can't be choosers, after all. The thing with winning ugly, though, is that fans everywhere only tolerate it when you are consistently winning. RFK will not be brimming with rage if we win, say, six of our next ten playing long balls to Cristman. However, we're going to have to improve from here if we don't want to be both bad and ugly all at once.