With the loss to the Chicago Fire on Friday night, D.C. United completed its inexorable run to the top pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. It's looked inevitable for months now, but with D.C. United's SuperMagic Numbers now officially at zero, the Black-and-Red are officially on the clock. Has there ever been a more unlikely week in MLS history in which a team wins both a major trophy and the Wooden Spoon in the same week?
- Steven Goff, via washingtonpost.com: "A peculiar scene unfolded late Friday night at RFK Stadium: D.C. United players lifted a trophy at the conclusion of a 3-0 defeat to the Chicago Fire, a setback that pushed the club closer to MLS futility. It was, for sure, a contradictory moment. Given how the season has unfolded, it seemed fitting. United won the U.S. Open Cup on Tuesday in Salt Lake City, then resumed its miserable regular season with another defeat."
- Ben Bromley: "This game did nothing but solidify in all of our minds that D.C. United's first priority this offseason must be to lock down the defense. With the offense showing signs of energy and life (while also showing youthful mistakes), even an average defense would have kept this game close. Instead, this backline gave up three goals and looked rather incompetent throughout. This team probably needs two new fullbacks and a starting level center back before the start of next season in order to contend next year. The midfield may be able to gel in the offseason and be very good going into next season, but the defense needs some serious work."
- Pablo Maurer, via soccerbyives.net: "It wasn't the most unexpected result; aside from their record, United were playing on two days rest and were forced to water down their starting eleven. Missing regulars like Dejan Jakovic and Ethan White, United's back line was particularly threadbare, and it showed. Things started brightly for DC, who seemed to be riding the high of their Open Cup title. Collin Martin had a pair of chances in the opening 10 minutes, while Jared Jeffrey nearly scored his second spectacular goal in as many weeks at the quarter hour mark, only to find himself denied by the woodwork."
- MLSSoccerr.com: "Fighting for a postseason spot in a crowded Eastern Conference, the Chicago Fire started the season's final month off well with a 3-0 victory over D.C. United on Friday at RFK Stadium. The win, thanks in large part to a sterling effort by Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson, pushed Chicago (12-12-7, 43 points) into the Eastern Conference's fifth and final playoff spot, one point ahead of the Philadelphia Union and two ahead of both the New England Revolution and Columbus Crew. Last-place United, meanwhile, saw their league winless streak reach nine matches (0-7-2) in their first effort following Tuesday's emotional US Open Cup final victory against Real Salt Lake."
- Ben Olsen, via dcunited.com: "The scoreline is a big disappointment and I think that's going to hurt our pride, but overall if we can take a look at the film of this game, I think there will be a lot of good stuff. You still have to make the plays that matter on the defensive end...Our priority isn't to knock someone off. It's to win some games and put points on the board. It's not enough obviously, and we want to put our best foot forward the next couple of days. We're going to tinker and show different formations and look at things for next year. Unfortunately, we have that luxury."
- Conor Doyle on his partnership with Jared Jeffrey and Luis Silva, via dcunited.com: "It's hard to look past obviously not scoring, but if you do look past it, get past the fact that you didn't score, you look at those things and you think it all worked well. The three of us combined pretty well and we were happy with how it all went down. It was just that final touch or that final thing that was off tonight."
While D.C. United is trying out various combinations of players during the month of October as part of an extended 2014 preseason, they will be facing teams who are motivated by this season's playoff race to go out and give their best. On Friday night, despite D.C. United playing attractive, attacking soccer for stretches of the game, they ran up against Sean Johnson at his best and Fire attacking players who looked like they were playing for something. The Fire's goal in the 24th minute against the run of play, created by Juan Luis Anangono and finished by Jeff Larentowicz, was a goal any Chicago fan would be proud of since it displayed great individual skill by Anangono, smart work by Larentowicz to make the near-post run, and sharp finishing from a very narrow angle. For United fans, it's unfortunately more of the same this season that now finds the team with a -35 goal differential for the year.
This disparity between United's motivation and their opponents' will continue to be a problem as the Black-and-Red take on the Philadelphia Union, Sporting Kansas City, and the Houston Dynamo to close out the season. Ben Olsen has said that his team is playing for their jobs next season, but what's the measure by which they will be judged? Wins? Individual performance? Combination play with other players?
The Last Word:
In a game in which several players were playing out of position, it's hard to draw many conclusions. On offense, Jared Jeffrey continued to show great range with his shots and was unlucky not to have a second bomb score in as many weeks. Conor Doyle, Luis Silva, Nick DeLeon, and Dwayne DeRosario also looked dangerous, but they weren't able to beat an inspired Sean Johnson. But at this point of the season, pointing out players who had good games or bad games (especially when playing out of position) seems pointless unless we know what the lens is through which those players should be judged as the team prepares for next season.
For fans of other mid-to-lower-level revenue teams like the Houston Dynamo, Real Salt Lake, and Sporting Kansas City, they have a lens through which to judge their players. For those teams, all their players get evaluated based on the strong playing styles and systems those franchises have developed. Each of those styles is unique, and some are more pleasing to watch than others, but these teams are built to fit their styles, and success continues when new players arrive. It's a little bit like college football powers who just keep plugging in players year in and year out to keep their system steaming along. Look at the amount of talent that has left Houston, RSL, and Sporting just in the last two years (Geoff Cameron, Fabian Espindola, Jamison Olave, Will Johnson, Kei Kamara, Roger Espinoza), plus many quality MLS role players. What do these teams do? They go out and get new players who fit the system and they continue to win.
So, for D.C. United, what's the lens through which players should be evaluated regarding whether they will be back next year? Is there a team system or style emerging that should be the guide? Are we satisfied if that style is the defensive game plan that won the US Open Cup and won so many games last fall? (I would be) Should the lens be whether players are young and American? Is it salary cap considerations? With Ben Olsen and Dave Kasper looking set to return next season, this is perhaps the most important issue of the offseason (other than finalizing the stadium deal).