For the second consecutive game, D.C. United were off to a flying start. Four touches from four different players resulted in a lead in the 7th minute against the Philadelphia Union, as United used their pressure to create a goal. There was still plenty of game left, but the onus was now on the Union to earn a result against their Eastern Conference rivals. But that all eventually fell to the wayside, as the Union ran out 3-2 winners on Saturday afternoon.
“Great start to the game, that’s what we wanted,” center back Steve Birnbaum told reporters after the game, after Zoltan Stieber scored his first goal of the season. “Obviously, we can’t sustain that pressure the entire game.”
An interception from Ulises Segura, a backheel from Yamil Asad, a pass into space in the box from Luciano Acosta allowed Stieber to stick a shot beyond keeper Andre Blake for the early lead. But that would be United’s last shot of the half, as their goal quickly gave way to sustained pressure from the Union.
The Union elected to target left back Joseph Mora, and had great success through the play of Ilsinho. The Brazilian winger had plenty of chances to run at the Costa Rican left back, which eventually led to the equalizer in the 37th minute. Ilsinho used his ability to get around Mora, and then his cross took a deflection off of Frederic Brillant, undoing United’s goal to start the game.
“We thought Ilsinho might start. He gives them a different look,” United Head Coach Ben Olsen said during his post game press conference. “He poses different types of threats than Fafa [Picault]. I think that hurt us more, because he was more unpredictable, coming inside, overloading that right side. We had trouble solving that.”
But just when it seemed like United’s hopes were done for the day, Darren Mattocks gave United hope. United hadn’t managed a shot since Stieber’s goal, but the introduction of Mattocks and Bruno Miranda quickly changed that.
Two minutes after coming into the game, Mattocks read that Stieber was about to send a curling cross into the far post from the left hand side. Mattocks timed his run perfectly, got beyond his defender, and was in the exact right spot to volley home Stieber’s delivery.
“From preseason, me and Zoltan developed a bit of chemistry,” Mattocks said after the game. “As soon as he lifted his head up, I knew exactly where [the ball] was going. Zoltan deserves the credit for it.”
The 2-2 scoreline flattered United, but it gave them a chance to escape with a point on the road. But instead of closing up shop, United conceded almost immediately after, allowing a Borek Dockal goal in the 72nd minute.
It was a damaging response for United, one they would not recover from.
“What happens is you become passive all the sudden,” said Olsen. “That was a dagger,” added Birnbaum. “We can’t let them get down there that easily, especially after the goal.”
Mattocks found Miranda in the box in the final minute of the game, but the Bolivian whiffed on the chance, and Chris Durkin’s follow up attempt was well off target. Which meant that a great start once again resulted in dropped points on the road.
Given the Union’s dominance in the game, 23 shots to 4, 61% possession to 39%, 9 shots on goal to 3, the result isn’t all that surprising. With seven more games to go until Audi Fields open up though, United has to earn points from games like this to give themselves a chance at the playoffs during a hectic second half schedule.
Still, with five points from seven games, Olsen isn’t ready to hit the panic button yet, despite the inconsistent performance on the day.
“I’m not too alarmed with the situation we are in right now,” said Olsen. “We just lost a game on the road in MLS. It doesn’t feel good, and I don’t think we played up to our capabilities. So that’s concerning. But I’m not concerned about our ability to win games. We’ll be fine.”
Next up is a trip to Real Salt Lake, before other West Coast trips against the San Jose Earthquakes and Los Angeles Football Club to round out the month of May. With 27 games left on the schedule, there’s still plenty of time for United to right the ship that is the 2018 season.
“It’s a grind. It’s a tough stretch coming up, we have a bunch of away games,” said Mattocks of the schedule until mid-July. “It’ll be tough, we just have to move past [the loss].”