This wasn't supposed to happen. DC United, playing without Charlie Davies and Dax McCarty, and with Josh Wolff reduced to a substitute's role, was not supposed to go to JELD-WEN Field and do anything other than lose. The game was a foregone conclusion. Surely a short-handed, youthful DC squad that has struggled with defending set pieces all year long would have no chance against MLS's premier set piece scorers.
Looks like no one told United.
Despite the missing stars, the hostile crowd, and some bizarre officiating, United recorded what may well turn out to be a benchmark 3-2 victory over the Portland Timbers. Perry Kitchen, Chris Pontius, and Josh Wolff each scored a goal while rookie Blake Brettschneider had two assists in a breakout performance. United becomes the first team to go to Portland and avoid a loss in MLS play.
For thoughts on the game and player ratings, read on:
Where do we begin with this one? While it's tempting to start with referee Geoff Gamble, let's instead start with what DC did right. First and foremost, United won this game because of the tremendous amount of work that every player on the field put in. Facing a feisty opponent on a small turf field, you know the game will be less about technique and more about guts. Hard work was of paramount importance in this game, and tonight the harder working team won the game. In the first half in particular, DC won the large majority of the 50/50 balls, which despite Portland's possession advantage (59% as of the 29th minute) meant that the game was being played on United's terms. While the Timbers upped their work rate in the second half, they never regained the edge that they usually have in that department on their home turf.
It was also clear early that United would be putting an emphasis on being safe in the back. Normally, DC will try to play out of the back; tonight, unless there was no pressure on, the first thought was to simply clear the ball. While that hurt DC's attack and gave the Timbers more deep throw-ins and corner kicks than you'd like, it also meant that United had minimized the risk of giving away a goal by making a massive mistake. You'd have to imagine this was an instruction from Ben Olsen to the players before the game, and in these conditions it was the right choice.
With that out of the way, we might as well look at the game's big talking point: Officiating. This was apparently Gamble's second MLS game, and he made it one to remember (though perhaps for all the wrong reasons). In the first half, Gamble mostly seemed interested in staying uninvolved in the game; given the tight confines and the battling nature of the two teams, this seemed reasonable. It appeared we had a referee that would not make himself the story.
Not so fast, I guess. Gamble booked Dejan Jakovic despite appearing to get the ball in a tackle on Kalif Alhassan, and that was immediately followed by Cooper being (correctly) flagged for offside after scoring again. Between the questionable calls and the unpopular-but-correct calls, things were heating up. Jakovic - who by the time the game was over couldn't even stand near a Timbers player without being called for a foul - managed to outduel Cooper to a dangerous ball inside the six, but Gamble called it a penalty. While Jakovic did have both hands on Cooper, it was the kind of play you see go uncalled 20 or more times a game. I'd liken being called for that to being pulled over for doing 56 in a 55mph zone.
If that wasn't bad enough, the far side AR then negated two penalty kick saves by Bill Hamid on Cooper (side note: Hamid is a monster on PKs). Again, the letter of the law was being applied, and again it's something you never see enforced. What made matters worse was that, once Jack Jewsbury finally converted the third attempt, Portland had a player in the box before the ball was struck. If you're going to call two re-takes for the keeper coming off his line, you have to order a re-take there too. Needless to say, Gamble appeared to be in over his head on that play and a few others.
Enough about referees, though. This was a big night for DC United as a team, and even bigger for some individual players. It's time for some player ratings (as always, using the B&RU 1-5 scale):
Hamid: 2 This was a really tricky performance to grade. On one hand, Hamid was mostly strong on crosses, made a crucial, point-blank save on Futty Danso in the 59th minute, and (whether they counted or not) saved two penalty kicks. On the other hand, Jorge Perlaza's late goal essentially went through Hamid's hands, and he also looked less tuned-in than his teammates in the first half.
Kitchen: 5 Kitchen's goal was quality; we have attackers who wouldn't have finished that as cleanly. Throw in some resolute defending, including doing well enough against Alhassan that Spencer switched him to the other side in the 2nd half, and you have arguably Kitchen's finest game as a pro.
Jakovic: 3 A sparking first half was not quite matched in the second. The PK call against him was awfully soft, and I thought most of the fouls called against him were similarly questionable. However, the main point of concern was that he didn't step up to another level when Portland did, and that caused some danger. The ref might have had it in for him, but that offside call on Cooper masked that Jakovic flat-out lost him.
White: 4 He never quite reached the heights that Jakovic did, but he also maintained a more consistently good performance over 90 minutes. Nearly scored just before halftime to boot. His work on Danso on set pieces was mostly strong.
Woolard: 4 A quiet night for the Jason Statham lookalike, but in a game like this that's probably a sign of him having done well. Dealt comfortably enough with both Zizzo and Alhassan.
Najar: 3 Perhaps not involved as often as you'd like, but Najar was decent all night long and kept Rodney Wallace from overlapping too often. Big plus: His free kicks were better than we've gotten out of Dax McCarty.
Simms: 5 At halftime, Simms was my MOTM. He was passed eventually, but it wasn't because he slipped. This was his best game of the season, and on a night where anything less would have left us in trouble. Statement game from Simms.
King: 4 Simms and King unquestionably won the central midfield battle against Jewsbury and Diego Chara (who had a debacle of a game). Nothing particularly special from King, but he left everything on the field.
Pontius: 5 Party Boy was up for this one. A constant source of danger throughout the game, he bagged an assist on the opener and it was his incisive run on the dribble that won the penalty kick that he himself converted. Can you have 2 MOTM winners? Well screw you if I can't, because I'm giving one to him and...
Brettschneider: 5 When you're a rookie replacing your team's superstar forward, this is how you do your job. BB had 2 assists - both from flick-ons - and was a constant problem for Portland's defense despite being smaller than either of them. Tremendous.
Ngwenya: 3 His sharp 40th minute header was denied by an equally sharp save from Troy Perkins, and the fact that he simply out-hustled everyone to make it happen summed up his night. The little things might not win Ngwenya many fans among the United faithful, but they were important tonight.
Wolff: 4 I had a feeling that Wolff would cause Portland problems by just being his elusive self, and he scored his well-taken goal by making a run that the Timbers just didn't expect and could do nothing about. That late sub looked entirely based on a tactical switch to a 451; his strained groin looks to be just fine.
Fred: NR Showed some poise as fresh legs in the late going, which is no small thing for him. Did he manage to win a stoppage time header in our box? I think he did!
Barklage: NR Really should have done better with that late 2v1. Either play BB early, or go to the corner! Got caught in two minds and ended up giving Portland the ball back. For old-school fans of global soccer, you might have been reminded of the play that ended David Ginola's career with France, but mercifully Portland did not have an Emil Kostadinov anywhere on the field.
All in all, this was both a heroic performance by an undermanned United team and also a contender for MLS game of the season (along with just about every other game this absurd weekend). More importantly, this is the kind of result young or unfamiliar teams often use to propel themselves to new heights. DC will be able to look back on this game down the road, during the hard times, and have utter confidence in themselves to accomplish this kind of result on a regular basis.