D.C. United got within arm’s reach of clinching a playoff spot with last night’s 1-0 win over Toronto FC. It wasn’t the greatest performance by any stretch of the imagination, but for the second game in a row United defended their own penalty area with intelligence and determination, and one of their difference-makers came up big on a set piece goal. You know what that sounds like? The kind of sturdy 1-0 first leg win that is often the foundation for a two-legged series victory.
We’re not there yet, though, so let’s focus on yesterday just a bit longer.
Wayne Rooney is worth the price of admission
We already wrote about it, and we’re going to drop the video in here again because it’s so damn good.
Words don’t do this kind of thing justice. All I’ll say is this: right before halftime, United won a corner, and Rooney jogged over to take it. As he arrived, the crowd at Audi Field began roaring. United has had so many truly great players, but there’s a level of heightened expectation here when he stands over a dead ball that has only happened once, with Marco Etcheverry. As a fan since 1996, I don’t throw that name around lightly, and it’s the same vibe with Rooney on Buzzard Point as it used to be with El Diablo standing over a free kick on East Capitol Street.
Chris Durkin: still good
Durkin appeared in 16 of United’s first 17 games this year, but Russell Canouse’s return from injury, Junior Moreno’s improvement as he adjusted to MLS, and the move away from playing a 4141 saw the youngster’s minutes dry up. Durkin made two stoppage-time cameos off the bench before not getting a second in any of the next six games.
There was reason to wonder whether this might cause him to lose some sharpness or confidence. The international windows in September and October have given him the chance to step in for Moreno, though, and he has done pretty well with his time. In those four starts, United won three one-goal games and got a road draw at NYCFC.
Critically, against FC Dallas it looked like his defending in transition has vastly improved. He’s still a bit slow on the turn, but in that game he showed a knack for positioning himself well enough that he had time to account for that slowness without being exposed. That’s a big step forward, and one he hopefully can continue to build on.
One thing that didn’t disappear: Durkin can hit a ball:
Durkin is looking for this pass before Stieber even gets the ball. It wasn’t in frame, so I didn’t include it in the gif, but when Luciano Acosta passes to Stieber, Durkin is already moving into the space Acosta’s movement opens up. He’s already gesturing for the ball, and he already knows his first look is going to be for this 35 yard pass. He might not know exactly who his runner is going to be (Rooney is also an option), but he knows a) that TFC hasn’t recovered from the turnover that sparked this move, b) that they’re scrambling in midfield because of how many runners D.C. has, and c) that this is no time for a sideways pass.
In other words, this is a great summary of why Durkin is such a good prospect. It’s what he sees ahead of time, over a larger swath of the field, than the large majority of other American defensive midfielders. And for United’s stretch run, it’s great to see that if he’s needed in a playoff game, he’s not going to be a question mark.
Oh, and the goal itself? If this is a game between two random teams, I’m thinking Yamil Asad is offside. Since this involves my team having a glorious goal called back? Mmmmm I don’t know.
Nick DeLeon’s bottomless gas tank
Speaking of players who looked sharp after a spell of limited minutes, Nick DeLeon went 90 minutes after playing 2 in his comeback from injury. That’s 2 minutes after 19 straight games out, and then he just goes out there and plays a full 90.
It’s a pretty impressive achievement just from a physical perspective, and he wasn’t just a body out on the field. United needed some energy after not really rotating much, and DeLeon provided it throughout. I’m sure when the gameplan was being discussed, the assumption was that they’d sub him off, but in the game itself? DeLeon never gave the team any reason to think he was running out of gas.
Olsen seemed unsurprised by DeLeon’s durability. “We chuck him out there, and he’s maybe one of the better players on the field on the night. That’s Nicky,” said Olsen with a smile during the post-game press conference. While Olsen did sound a note of caution about needing to check on how drained DeLeon was at today’s training session, it seems like DeLeon barely missed a step during an absence that stretched beyond the entire summer.
“I’m feeling good. Tired, but overall feeling good. It was nice to get a full 90 in, push the fitness,” said a typically understated DeLeon. Asked if there was a plan in place for him to go 90, DeLeon gave a small chuckle while saying “I’m not sure. Mentally, I was gonna go 90. As far as the gameplan, that’s a question [for] Ben.”
These quotes really sum it up. No extra chatter, no self-congratulation. For DeLeon, the job was simple: be ready to play 90. Don’t get too caught up in whether you get subbed or not. Control what you can control.
When “in rare form” is truly rare
I saw a tweet after last night’s game that got me thinking:
Cursory look through ye olde form guide tells me this is the worst 20+ game stretch in @MLS history. Worse than the 2001 Mutiny, 2005 RSL, 2007 TFC, 2009 RBNY, 2013 DC, worse than anything Chivas ever did.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) October 18, 2018
Woof. #ORLvSEA https://t.co/FSGXhciGAV
First of all: lol Orlando. Second, we all know United is in great form right now, but let’s put it into context. A 6W-2D-0L run means they’ve taken 20 points out of the last 24 available. This is the best run of form United has been on in a decade. They’ve come close to that form a couple of times in recent years, with a couple stretches 17 or 18, and even one 6-1-1 run through June and July or 2012, but the last time they had more than 20 points in an 8-game stretch was during their last Supporters Shield winning run back in 2007, where they went 8W-1D-0L from August 5 to September 12. Whether you start on 8/5/2007 with a 3-0 win over the Revs or four days later with a 1-0 road win over the Galaxy, you get 22 points from 8 games.
2006’s Shield-winning team could never do more than 20 points from 8 games (though they did go 9W-2D-0L for one stretch, there’s no way to arrange 8 games within that spell to get more than 20). 1999’s Cup and Shield-winning team had 11 straight wins, but this was in the shootout era. Treat the shootout wins as draws, and you can’t get past 20 from any consecutive string of 8 games. The 1998 team, which won another double and was as good as any team MLS has ever seen, had a stretch of 9 straight wins with only a single game against the Tampa Bay Mutiny (RIP) requiring the shootout tiebreaker.
That’s it though. This club had the best four-year run MLS has ever or will ever see, has won the Shield four different times, and they’ve been in this kind of form a small handful of times in 23 years of playing soccer. And they’re doing it in a moment where, between Rooney and Audi Field and some struggling teams representing the District in football and baseball, there’s a glorious opportunity to win more attention, more devotion from sports fans in the DMV.
I can’t think of a better word for this, especially after so many years of grinding and scrapping for everything, than “delightful.”