This piece took a couple of extra days to come together due to various real life obligations, but also because I couldn't quite land on a subject. However, with D.C. United playing the LA Galaxy tomorrow night, it's time to close the door on this game whether I'm ready or not. So rather than choose, I'm asking you to bear with me as we touch on three topics that are loosely tethered together by the 3-1 aggregate loss to Queretaro.
Let's start off with something United fans are way past being simply tired of: Early goals conceded. The Black-and-Red were, for all intents and purposes, eliminated when Angel Sepulveda finished an easy chance following a thorough defensive breakdown in the 4th minute. The air went out of RFK Stadium, save for one corner of the quiet side that was full of Queretaro supporters.
(side note: Until the FMF and CONCACAF decide to pursue any sort of strategy against the anti-gay slur popular in Liga MX and that made an appearance at RFK on Tuesday, I think it's fair to regard them as part of the problem. The good people at Outsports have a comprehensive storystream on this problem, and yet no one of note in the Mexican federation or at CONCACAF has so much as said "hey, this is actually not cool.")
It's not just that United fans knew the series was essentially lost in that moment. It's that we've seen this happen too many times in the past few months. It's not even a merely unusual problem: I've never seen anything like this in two decades of following soccer obsessively, and I don't recall anyone mentioning to me that it reminds them of some other team they can recall.
Because I'm apparently a masochist, let's look at the numbers:
In United's last 39 games, they've given up at least 1 goal in the first 30 minutes on 19 different occasions (including 4 different times where they gave up 2 goals inside 30 minutes). Of those 23 goals, 14 were scored by the 15th minute, a total which includes two different games - last season's second trip to Montreal and the win over Philadelphia at home - in which the opponent was up 2-0 before 15 minutes had been played. 10 of these goals were scored before the 6th minute. Again: Before the 6th minute!
These numbers are astounding. The last time DCU went three games without giving up a goal in the first 30 minutes was actually a four-game run last summer: June 24th (1-0 at Chicago), June 27th (0-0 at TFC), June 30th (2-1 Open Cup loss at Philadelphia), July 3rd (1-0 loss at Seattle), and July 18th (2-1 loss at Dallas). Before that, you had to go back to early April.
I don't have a solution for this. The kneejerk reaction is to say that the coaching staff isn't getting the team ready to play, and while I normally think the kneejerk reaction is wrong...well, this time it isn't. Ben Olsen and his staff are surely even more upset about this fact than I am, and they've surely tried a bunch of things trying to stop it. They have to keep working at it, because this goal was the product of players that weren't ready to go.
That said, this is not a situation where you can blame the coach and move on. Ben Olsen and Chad Ashton aren't playing games. Zach Thornton is not standing between the pipes. Every player has to get themselves mentally prepared to play for every game. The leaders within the squad have a special responsibility to make sure the guys that need a little extra to wake up are fully awake at kickoff, not in the 15th minute. The book is out on United: Go in all guns blazing for the first few minutes, and your odds of getting a 1-0 lead are pretty damn good (and at little defensive risk to you, home or away).
This has to stop, and everyone involved in gameday prep and the playing of games needs to truly look at themselves and figure out what they're doing wrong. Last year's string of comeback wins was fun, but it's not at all replicable, especially as the club deals with life without Bill Hamid and adjusts to a brand new midfield.
MLS went 0 for 4 in the CCL, even though every team had something positive to fall back on. RSL was supposed to be trashed by Tigres, and came closer than anyone to forcing overtime. United has Tiago Volpi and the crossbar to blame for not bagging an away goal that would have changed the series. Seattle went toe-to-toe with Club America. LA did pretty well in the first leg, even if they only ended up with a 0-0 draw.
What has to change to bridge the gap between "we can take some positives from this" to "we advanced?" Plenty of people want to credit Montreal for doing their preseason in Mexico in 2015, but there's no concrete evidence saying it did anything at all. It may have prepped the Impact, but IMFC still needed an unfocused Pachuca side to show up over two legs, and they still needed Calum Mallace to produce the greatest pass he will ever strike to pick out Cameron Porter, 18 minutes into his pro career, to score in stoppage time. I think luck had a whole hell of a lot more to do with Montreal beating Pachuca than where camp was, especially when you consider the luckless nature of DC and RSL's defeats.
So camps in Mexico are probably out...what else is there? Raising the cap to free up the pursuit of better players - more specifically, better second- and third-tier players - is the most obvious solution. LA had to start Dave Romney, an undrafted 2nd year pro they pulled up from their USL farm team, in Torreon. Seattle's first leg subs were all 2nd year pros, two of whom have under 250 minutes played in their MLS careers. It's important to blood youngsters, but you're not winning in Mexico with guys who have next to no experience at a level higher than the USL or NCAA.
A calendar change is also getting a lot of discussion, and it appears much more likely that MLS will pursue that rather than asking their more parsimonious owners to catch up to the kind of spending we see in LA or Toronto. However, there's no perfect time to play this tournament: If the CCL is played over a calendar year, teams will likely face CCL knockout games during or just before the MLS Cup playoffs. MLS teams already choose regular season matches over the CCL group stage, and you can bet that the same pattern will hold in this scenario.
A more realistic move would be to start the CCL knockout round in mid-to-late March, so that MLS teams get at least three games under their belts while Liga MX teams don't have a conflict with their own Liguilla.
Getting back to the Black-and-Red, Olsen has multiple logjams on his depth chart in the new 4411. This piece will grow too long if we talk about the wings, so let's stay in the center of the park for now. Luciano Acosta seems sure to be first choice between Fabian Espindola and the midfield, but then Chris Rolfe could renew his partnership with Espindola if Olsen wanted to go back to the 442 while Acosta adjusts. Julian Buescher did his claim for more time no harm at all on Tuesday, and against teams that don't keep good defensive spacing his passing could be extremely effective. He won't displace Acosta right away, but if the Argentine's adjustment to MLS isn't fast, the rookie is a good plan B.
Buescher is hopefully also in line to start in central midfield, at least in home games against weaker foes (looking at you, Colorado). But then, if you start Buescher you have to drop Nick DeLeon, and he's not going to learn his new central role sitting on the bench. Marcelo Sarvas is pretty much sure to start at this point, but then he might be better off in a pairing where he's the 8 rather than the 6.
That brings us to a pretty significant problem: United's logjam in the middle means the team has several interesting players to be the more attacking member of the double pivot, but only Markus Halsti, Jared Jeffrey, Paul Clowes are naturally the more defensive player in the group. Halsti had a disruption in his preparation for the second straight preseason, while Clowes is a rookie who has already been loaned to Richmond for the start of the season. Jeffrey, meanwhile, has only looked comfortable playing as a midfield anchor rather than in a double pivot. Orlando's successful use of tampering in snatching Antonio Nocerino away from the Black-and-Red may have bagged United plenty of allocation money, but you can't put a bag of theoretical money on the field as a ball-winner.
This is troubling, because United is going to face a lot of good playmakers that will sternly test the double pivot. Sarvas mostly did a great job in the first leg, but a) that "mostly" is because of his involvement in the first goal, and b) he's 34 and teams now have 2 games of tape on how he'll fit here. Queretaro already figured some of that out, and in any case it's unfair to burden Sarvas with "get an inhuman number of recoveries while also completing 89% of your passes every week or we're doomed" as his job description.
Lee Nguyen and Mauro Diaz are both on the schedule before March is up, and we'll see Pedro Morales, John Goossens (Chicago's new playmaker, who looks pretty good), and Nguyen again in April. If United struggles between the lines because Sarvas can't be great in a new role on a new team this late in his career, or because Markus Halsti can't significantly improve on his 2015 play (thus leaving little choice beyond rolling with Sarvas or throwing Clowes into the fire), it's going to be very tough to protect a back four that already has enough to worry about without Hamid doing his Superman act to bail them out.