D.C. United, playing their first game since 1997 without Ben Olsen as a player or coach, fell to a 2-1 road defeat against the Chicago Fire. Despite improving over some dismal recent performances, United conceded twice on set pieces before halftime, and an own goal from Jonathan Bornstein was not quite enough for the visitors to stage a comeback.
Whether due to a congested schedule or a simple need to change United’s stars, interim head coach Chad Ashton brought six new players into the lineup. Frederic Brillant returned from suspension, while United started Erik Sorga and Gelmin Rivas up front in a 442, leaving normal starter Ola Kamara on the bench.
United was hoping to present something different, but the early returns were more of the same play that had condemned them to four straight losses. An foul inside the first 100 seconds of the match gave Chicago’s Alvaro Medran the chance to serve in a free kick from 40 yards, and the Spaniard took advantage with a perfect delivery that found the diving CJ Sapong, who poked the ball home from close range in the 3rd minute.
Barely a minute later, Medran smashed a 23 yard shot off the post after nutmegging Erik Sorga as the Fire looked to take complete control of the match. United regained their footing, though, and eventually Rivas wasted a sitter in the 16th minute. The Black-and-Red showed some patience in possession, eventually opening up some space for Julian Gressel to drive in a cross from the right. Gressel’s service was exactly what Rivas needed, but from the doorstep the target man headed right at Bobby Shuttleworth, and no one in a white shirt could get the the rebound.
Both teams were trying to string together possession and offer some high pressure without the ball, but long spells of first half play passed uneventfully as both defenses were able to rebuff whatever was thrown at them. However, just moments before halftime, United’s set piece woes continued, with the Fire making it 2-0 on a corner kick. Medran’s service once again evaded United’s defenders, and this time Boris Sekulic had a free header at the back post that he guided past Bill Hamid.
United needed a spark, and they got one via a series of fortuitous bounces in the 56th minute. The move started brightly, with a quick combination freeing Joseph Mora just as Chicago had committed numbers forward. With plenty of room, Mora stormed up the left and into the box, but no one really offered an option. Mora’s eventual shot was blocked by Mauricio Pineda and seemingly headed wide, but Jonathan Bornstein’s attempt to get an additional touch was a disaster, sending the ball trickling over the goal line.
Ashton looked to press for more, sending Kamara and Edison Flores into the game three minutes after the goal. For Flores, it was a welcome return after nearly two full months out due to a facial fracture.
The own goal in their favor was just as much of a spark, though, and United was causing the Fire defense trouble, with Kamara skimming the crossbar in the 68th minute after fine work from Gressel and Chris Odoi-Atsem along the right flank. Three minutes later, Flores powered an angled shot through traffic, forcing a save from Shuttleworth, but with Kamara and Gressel lurking, the rebound skipped away to safety.
Asad forced a flying save from Shuttleworth in the 72nd minute as United showed more sustained attacking life than they had in weeks. However, the risk-taking that a comeback would require came with risks, and a simple long ball from the Fire saw substitute Elliott Collier come close to putting the game to bed in the 78th minute.
By the end, the Fire were reduced to hanging on for dear life, drawing yellow cards for chippy fouls and time-wasting. It wasn’t pretty, but it was just enough to hold off United, who couldn’t carve out one last chance despite throwing plenty of numbers forward in pursuit of an equalizer.
Now on a five-game losing streak, United (2W-5D-10L) will need to take another step forward in a very short amount of time, as they host the Philadelphia Union this coming Wednesday night.
Chicago (4231): Bobby Shuttleworth; Boris Sekulic, Mauricio Pineda, Wyatt Omsberg (Andre Reynolds 75), Jonathan Bornstein (C); Micheal Azira, Alvaro Medran; Przemyslaw Frankowski (Ignacio Aliseda 63), Fabian Herbers (Elliott Collier 75), CJ Sapong; Robert Beric
DCU (442): Bill Hamid; Chris Odoi-Atsem (Kevin Paredes 80), Frederic Brillant (C), Donovan Pines, Joseph Mora; Julian Gressel (Griffin Yow 83), Russell Canouse, Junior Moreno, Yamil Asad; Erik Sorga (Ola Kamara 59), Gelmin Rivas (Edison Flores 59)
Chicago - Azira 58, Sapong 89, Medran 90, Shuttleworth 91+
DCU - None