D.C. United lost 2-0 to Sporting Kansas City in an uneven, rain-soaked Walt Disney Pro Soccer Classic preseason match. Bobby Convey and Soony Saad scored the goals late, with Convey's powerful strike coming in the 74th minute and Saad adding the second in the 81st. The game was played in a downpour for the last 75 minutes, resulting in a game where both teams were largely able to contain each other.
Both teams opened the game with strong line-ups. Sporting fielded seven starters and three more players that will be regulars in their gameday squads along with trialist Mechack Jerome (who had a trial with United last season as well). Meanwhile, Ben Olsen fielded what at this point looks like our starting eleven for March 2nd's season-opener in Houston against the Dynamo:
In the past, United has played their normal 442/4231 hybrid as more heavily 4231 against KC in an effort to match the midfield triangle, but tonight things were different. The Black-and-Red took on a 442 defensive shape that allowed Dwayne De Rosario and Lionard Pajoy the chance to divide the job of pressuring in half, though it should be said that United didn't high-press that often.
The game was uneventful during the opening stretch, but DC looked like the sharper side. We saw some quick combinations that were pleasing to the eye as well as effective. That kind of play is the platform for breaking KC's high-pressure system, and on several occasions that's exactly what happened. While United was starting to solve the Sporks and create good-looking moves forward, the Kansas City attack left new Designated Player Claudio Bieler on an island regularly as their 433 often became a 4141 (perhaps a consequence of losing the running machine that is Roger Espinoza).
United's respectable start didn't result any chances of note, while defensively the only challenging play of note was Dejan Jakovic's impressive tackle on CJ Sapong in the 17th minute after KC had gone with a long ball in behind the DC defense. Jakovic later showed us his other, less popular side with a 39th minute turnover that allowed Benny Feilhaber to line up a blast that Bill Hamid did very well to save.
As the half wore on, KC began to assert themselves a bit more. United's ability to get a third or fourth man near the ball in possession evaporated, and the lack of passing options meant that possession went from an advantage to a disadvantage. One significant factor was the work of Bobby Convey in pinning Chris Korb back; without the consistent overlapping threat from Korb, Kansas City was able to recover and break up our moves forward.
One player who did catch the eye a bit in the early portion of the game was Marcelo Saragosa. He had a breakaway cancelled by being a yard or so offside, and generally looked more aggressive about jumping into the attack than he did in 2012. Given that Saragosa's starting position is the one United fans most often cite as the spot they want to see a "big" signing at, it's imperative for Saragosa to provide this kind of extra dimension to stay on the field ahead of John Thorrington, Raphael Augusto, Syamsir Alam, and Big Name Signing.
After 32 minutes, Olsen made five subs. Five minutes after that, new trialist Marcos Sanchez entered, leaving United with the following squad on the field:
It was during this stretch of the game that we got a good look at some trialists, and today really underlined which ones are unlikely to make the squad. Joseph Nane was cited for playing too slowly against the Tampa Bay Rowdies, and against MLS's highest-tempo team that only became more clear. Several attacks - most obviously a 51st minute move up the right flank that saw Sanchez and Robbie Russell combine well at the start of the move - died at Nane's feet, as the need to take an extra second saw his windows to go forward close time and again.
Eventually, KC picked up on this and intercepted a pass of his in the 81st minute that eventually became Saad's goal. It's safe to say that Nane's assets in the midfield (namely his physical strength and his willingness to support teammates) are outweighed by this crucial flaw in his game, at least in United's high-speed style of play.
Danish left back Jan Frederiksen didn't have too many opportunities to showcase himself against the Rowdies, but tonight he made a good argument that he's ready to contribute in MLS. Frederiksen never once received the ball without already knowing what he'd do with it, and those ideas were generally positive, attacking moves rather than simply conservatively passing the buck to someone else.
I felt particularly bad for Frederiksen early in the second half when he made a pass to Walter Martinez and then surged forward through a seam in the KC defense. Martinez found Kyle Porter, who should have played a first-time pass forward for Frederiksen in a big gap. Porter, perhaps feeling pressured to do something spectacular, instead opted to take a touch and then go for goal, which he missed by a good 7-8 yards. That was a long sprint for Frederiksen that went completely unrewarded, and you can be sure that United's coaching staff took note of it.
Sanchez arrived with lots of promise, and while he didn't have a stellar outing, he showed more of why he starts for Panama at just 23. His first touch is very trustworthy, and he is more than willing to find his teammates rather than simply go it alone. His runs off the ball got him into space more than once as well.
In fact, if anything my one complaint was that he lacked the selfishness that Porter had shown earlier on what should have been United's best look at goal. Frederiksen ended up on the ball wide left, and Sanchez found himself unmarked at the back post. The Dane picked out the Canalero, who should have hit a first-time sidefoot shot. Instead, Sanchez opted to trap the ball and square it to Michael Seaton, who was just barely beaten to it by a KC defender.
Martinez, the final trialist I haven't mentioned, struggled. Playing the same roaming second forward role as De Ro usually does, Martinez ended up dropping too deep at times and also saw his first touch betray him more often than a player in such a role can afford. While I thought he had the right idea on a regular enough basis, it was his execution that let him down. For a player over 30, technique can't really be an issue if you want to make it in MLS.
United made three halftime subs, sending in trialist center backs Henry Kalungi and Shavar Thomas for Brandon McDonald and Dejan Jakovic and Lewis Neal for Saragosa in a central midfield role. Again we saw DC start the half promisingly, with good combinations down both flanks and the aforementioned Sanchez chance standing out.
If anything, this might have been United's best spell of the match (with KC leaving their starters in until starting to make subs just before the hour mark). The capital club controlled this stretch of the game more or less conclusively, but saw either individual mistakes by trialists end their attacks or, in one case, Oriol Rosell's midfield foul preventing Porter from getting in behind on what looked like a breakaway.
Kalungi started off quite well, most notably making a nice interception with KC attacking 3v2 down the right half of United's defense. He was unfortunately let down by Robbie Russell, who took Kalungi's pass and immediately returned it to Sporting. While the attack ended with Paulo Nagamura's free kick into the wall, it was still somewhat predictive. Russell eventually gave up a goal more or less single-handedly - we'll get to that in a minute - while Kalungi's passing out of the back eventually became a problem.
That said, he probably looked a bit better than Thomas, who was involved with a goal against and offered up a couple of dreadful clearances. For an MLS veteran, Thomas should have been more solid than this, and what should have been a straightforward push for a spot on the roster might have just gotten complicated for the former (insert MLS team here) center back.
The goals against were undoubtedly frustrating. Convey's goal came entirely due to Russell standing back and cheating wide, daring the notoriously left-footed Convey to use his right foot. Convey took a touch, sized up his shot, probably ordered some takeout and browsed Amazon before obliging with a wicked, dipping shot that he'll probably be quite happy with. Sure, Convey is "one-footed," but he does actually have two feet and given that kind of time, he can actually do something. Russell should know better.
Saad's goal took a sequence of errors rather than one enormous mistake. It started with Nane's predictable pass (which also lacked the proper velocity). Peterson Joseph intercepted in space and had time to see the absurd gap in DC's central defense. The gap was down to Kalungi going too far to the right, but United still could have escaped had Thomas focused on defending Saad rather than stepping up too late in an ill-conceived attempt at an offside trap. Saad, the ex-Michigan Wolverine, walked in on a classic 1v1 with the keeper and left Andrew Dykstra - who came in for Hamid in the 59th minute - with no chance.
United made some other subs here and there throughout the final half hour. Dykstra's entrance was followed by a first look at young Designated Player Rafael Gladiador in the 62nd minute. Rafael was largely left stranded as KC started to take control of the game, but he did hit a late shot hard enough to break the plastic fence behind KC's goal. Mostly, it was just nice to see that his hamstring injury has apparently dissipated.
Other subs entering for DC included Ryan Richter (fairly anonymous in 22 minutes after taking over for Martinez in the withdrawn forward role), Lance Rozeboom (who did OK coming in for Neal in the 81st minute), and Conor Shanosky (who looked stronger in a more defensive role and offered an instant upgrade over Nane, the player he replaced in the 83rd minute).
Ultimately, United fans should not be discouraged by the result. Our best eleven narrowly outplayed a group close to KC's best for the first 20+ minutes, and the trialist-heavy group we had in after halftime had the better of play for a similar amount of time in the second half. Some trialists - Frederiksen mostly, with Sanchez also doing well - made predicting our final roster that much tougher. Others - Nane and Martinez, I'm talking about you - will probably not get past this leg of the preseason camp.
Others gave us more of a mixed bag. Porter came back down to earth a bit after doing well in his first two appearances, while Thomas has a resume that suggests tonight was not his normal level of play. Richter didn't make an impact, while Kalungi had good and bad moments. Among the starters, McDonald, Saragosa, and Hamid stood out; against a team like KC, that will have to be the case when the games start to count.