For 89 minutes yesterday at RFK, the scene played out like so many disappointing nights over the last few years: United controlled possession against their opponents but lacked any real cutting edge and opened themselves to the counter with bad touches and misplaced passes. Unlike those other disappointing nights, though, the Black-and-Red never conceded a goal to the Fire - thanks in no small part to a nearly man-of-the-match performance from 'keeper Bill Hamid.
In the last ten minutes, United finally found that next gear they'd spent 80 minutes looking for, as D.C. finally started crafting chances within Chicago's penalty area. Not even the Fire's bunker-and-break tactics (and surprisingly strong organization) or their defenders' admirable determination to block anything that could be considered a shot could prevent a determined United side from swarming the box and eventually forcing a foul by the Chicago defense. When Dwayne de Rosario buried the spot kick at the 90-minute mark, it was more relief than euphoria - we were still alive. We still had a very real shot at the playoffs.
But then came stoppage time, and Chest's haunting refrain came 'round again. Focus and consistency, lads. Focus. And consistency.
Unfortunately, the preceding 90 minutes must have sapped Ben Olsen's side of all the focus reserves they had stored up, and the next several minutes were some of the worst I've ever seen from this team. Sebastián Grazzini's equalizer was a ridiculously good shot, but the build-up should have been cut out a number of times before he ever got the ball with Clyde Simms' body flying at him.
Chicago's winner was among the most absurd defensive displays I can remember. No pressure on the midfield build-up, no pressure on the central player when he received it from the wing. Marc Burch half-heartedly tracked the winger as he ran in behind, and he was so convinced that the player was offside that he actually turned and started running up-field. Most damningly, only one United field player kept playing, running back after no whistle came; even then, Perry Kitchen hesitated as he waited for the assistant referee's indication. The end result is the effective (though not mathematical) end of United's playoff chances.
I don't know if it was a lack of fight, or just the players' thinking the game was in the bag. It's usually my M.O. to look for reasons - tactical choices, personnel selections, anything - after something big happens for good or ill. And that'll come - I have a series of posts in mind for the next few weeks that I hope I'll never have to write. So I'm going to avoid any diagnostics for the time being and just sulk until Wednesday, when I'll be back on the banks of the Anacostia, fully convinced that we're still alive.
Because mathematically, even with the longest of odds, we are.