Soccer is a game of relative results. Yes, it helps if your team plays at a consistently high level on an absolute basis, but as long as your team beats their competition in individual games and in the overall standings, then they are getting the job done. And that's what 2014 has been all about for D.C. United in both the league and CONCACAF Champions League (CCL). The Black-and-Red have just been better, smarter, harder working, and luckier than their opponents more times than not this season, and that has resulted in the team clinching both the MLS Eastern Conference regular-season championship and the #1 seed entering the CCL quarterfinals next year.
- ChestRockwell: "The CONCACAF Champions League has always been a tournament full of strange events. Normally most of these involve acrimonious games with violent tackles and horrendous officiating, but D.C. United's path through this edition is a different sort of strange tale. Despite sending just fourteen players - including MLS pool goalkeeper Daniel Withrow, who briefly flirted with entering as a field player in the final minutes - to Panama, the Black-and-Red made it four wins from four CCL games with a 1-0 victory over Tauro FC. Conor Shanosky's fortuitous 24th minute header made all the difference for the visitors."
- Steven Goff, via washingtonpost.com: "The key is to avoid Pachuca and Club America, Mexican sides that would cause the most problems for an MLS team. Unless Pachuca slips up in its group finale, United will not encounter either Mexican team in the quarterfinals." [Written before the CCL games of Wednesday night, D.C. United appears to have followed the dean's advice and avoided a mexican club in the next round--but it won't be easy nonetheless.]
- Pablo Maurer, via mlssoccer.com: "United fielded a team made up primarily of reserves, leaving most of their regular starters back in the District to prepare for their MLS regular season finale at Montreal. It was a calculated gamble, and one that worked: United's depth got the job done, weathering a second-half barrage and nabbing a 1-0 victory, thanks to a fortuitous game-winner from Conor Shanosky, putting D.C. in prime position for next spring's quarterfinals."
- Chad Ashton, via mlssoccer.com: "I think it was important for us to come down here and get a result to put us in the best possible position in regards to seeding for the next stage of this tournament. So, we wanted to come down here and pick up a win and we can't do anything about the other games but hopefully that puts us in the top three or four seeds moving into the next stage of the tournament. I think Tauro played a good game. They came out, they put us under pressure, they had some chances at the end to equalize, they have some very good young players that I think some MLS teams will be looking at in the future. We're impressed."
CHINOOOOOO!!! @ConorShanosky17— Bobby Boswell (@bobbyboswell) October 22, 2014
Ben Olsen has been proven both shrewd and successful in his approach to this season's CCL group stage. Instead of choosing to overwhelm his weaker competition in the mid-week CCL games with a typical D.C. United Starting XI, he tactically decided to field teams which would be good enough to win, while preserving his full Starting XI for league matches. In a testament to how well this approach played out, not only did United win all four of their CCL matches, but they also went 4-1-1 in league matches which immediately preceded or followed a CCL match (and D.C. United still has its game at the Montreal Impact this weekend to add to this record). Here are these games:
|17-Aug||MLS||D.C. United||Colorado Rapids||Win||4-2|
|23-Aug||MLS||Sporting Kansas City||D.C. United||Win||0-3|
|10-Sep||MLS||New York Red Bulls||D.C. United||Loss||1-0|
|20-Sep||MLS||Chicago Fire||D.C. United||Draw||3-3|
|27-Sep||MLS||D.C. United||Philadelphia Union||Win||1-0|
|18-Oct||MLS||D.C. United||Chicago Fire||Win||2-1|
|25-Oct||MLS||Montreal Impact||D.C. United||TBD||TBD|
The Last Word:
For a team which qualified for CCL by winning the US Open Cup in 2013, historically the worst individual season in MLS history, D.C. United now finds itself as the #1 overall seed entering the CCL knockout stage. And it isn't a fluke, starting with their improbable 13th trophy they lifted last year which started with a penalty shoot-out win on the road at their affiliates, the Richmond Kickers. Next, came a Dwayne De Rosario-fueled win at the SoccerPlex over Philadelphia, followed by another over the New England Revolution (iced when Lionard Pajoy, yes Pajoy!, scored a late-game PK). Then a road win in the USOC semis over the Chicago Fire, followed by LEWIS NEAL! silencing Rio Tinto Stadium and defeating a very good Real Salt Lake side.
And then this year, like every CCL team, D.C. United played four group-stage games, two at home and two on the road. Like every team, they got to choose which of their players would take the field for each CCL match. And after all that, D.C. United sits atop the CCL standings. More work is to be done, for sure, but D.C. United richly deserve where they sit right now.
D.C. United won't take the field for its next CCL match for another 4+ months. But, as we fans savor how well the journey has gone so far, and look forward to what potentially awaits in the form of a continental championship, don't forget to raise a toast to Joe Willis, James Riley, DeRo, Pajoy, Chris Pontius, Sean Johnson, LEWIS NEAL!, Ethan White, Bill Hamid, the woodwork, Eddie Johnson, Fabian Espindola, Samuel Inkoom, Conor Shanosky (and his face), the reserves, Ben Olsen, and Chad Ashton. For all have played a role in this remarkable, unlikely, entertaining, yet deserved story--one whose last chapters are still to be written.
Offer a toast below to your favorite player or moment during D.C. United's current CCL run, which started back on May 28th, 2013, with the US Open Cup win in Richmond.