D.C. United may not have come out on top of Sunday's friendly against Dutch champions Ajax, but the weekend was most certainly a success (and not just because of the awesome Johan Cruyff Dips jersey I saw at RFK or the fact that I got engaged on Saturday). The Black-and-Red scheduled the friendly at just the right time and took advantage of the game to experiment and give fringe players minutes while still resting some banged up starters.
I'll get into that stuff and some individual impressions after the jump, but taking a step back, this was a really fun game to watch, just as a fan. Even though the game "meant" very little - in fact, probably because of it - we saw some good, creative passing moves from both teams, unmarred from the leg-shattering challenges MLS has seen over the last month. Admittedly, in the first 15 minutes, substantially all of that passing was in United's half of the field, and of course, it led to the opener for Ajax. But once United settled down and discovered that they actually needed to defend the flanks, things evened out for the duration. In fact, I think there's a good argument to be made that United were the stronger side over the last hour and change, creating a whole mess of danger in front of the Ajax net. (Of course, some Classic Fred finishing and a misplaced final pass or three prevented United from hanging a couple more goals on the Amsterdamers.) Even Ajax's game-winner came against the run of play, thanks to a great individual effort by Vurnon Anita and some truly "this is a friendly" defending from United.
Now for some scattered thoughts that almost (but don't quite) reach the level of player ratings:
- Perry Kitchen was the Man of the Match in his professional midfield debut. He was everywhere, popping up with the ball just when it looked like Ajax were going to bring the pain. Pretty much exactly what you want a defensive midfielder to do. I definitely would be interested in seeing him deployed in that role at some point in the future - never mind the fact that we currently have no fewer than four other guys that have been deployed in the deep central midfield role this season... Almost makes you pine for a formation shift.
- Brandon Barklage is somebody who would fight his way onto any MLS roster. He's skilled with the ball, has decent pace, good vision, and a great work rate. That said, he's not yet a right back. He can do the 1v1 defending, and he's definitely got chops going forward, but his positional awareness isn't where it needs to be to play at this level. He got caught out on Ajax's first goal, and they attacked his side of the field until United showed that they'd snuff out the crosses from that corner before they got to be too dangerous.
- The sheer number of times Joseph Ngwenya made wonderful 20-yard runs with the ball was utterly impressive. It's just too bad they were all in the direction of DC's goal and not Ajax's.
- Joe still made the scoresheet with an assist after forcing a turnover in Ajax's box and sliding a centering pass to Blake Brettschneider for the finish. It was actually only one of several harassing moments from the big Zimbabwean. He's definitely one of those all-too-common-in-MLS forwards who's better without the ball than with it.
- Let's give it up for Conor Shanosky , who made his RFK debut, coming on for fellow rookie Perry Kitchen late on and showing decent bite and range in his few minutes on the pitch.
- Rodrigo Brasesco : much better right fullback than center back. When he entered the game for Andy Najar , Barklage pushed up into Najar's vacated right midfield slot, and Brasesco took over the fullback spot. Barklage and Brasesco immediately started combining well, setting up good crossing opportunities and looking really impressive against the left side of Ajax's formation. Even more impressive from the Uruguayan was that he actually hit good crosses when he had the opportunity. It was a sight for sore eyes.
- We'll close with the goal-scorer, Superhero-in-Disguise BlakeBrett, who found himself in dangerous spots several times, but only managed to find the net once. Good outing for the rookie out of South Carolina. I'm excited to see how he develops - his positioning is typically very good, and if he can improve his touch just a bit and his finishing just a bit, he could find himself playing significant league minutes in the next couple years.
In all, United may not have played world-beater like they did - wait, was that just last year? the year before? - against A.C. Milan. But it's just a friendly. It was entertaining; the guys got to test themselves against a brandname (and a solid one to emulate, if you ask me); and Benny used the opportunity to rest banged up starters and test out new guys in new positions. Perhaps most importantly, though, nobody got hurt!