The positive side of D.C. United's 2-1 win Saturday night is well-known: First place in the Eastern Conference was assured, and with it a spot in the 2015-2016 CONCACAF Champions League (not to mention the allocation money that MLS gives out to benefit that particular cause). United kept alive their chances of hosting MLS Cup as well, should results out west work out just right. On top of that, the star of the show was Eddie Johnson, returning to a starting role after six weeks of backing up Luis Silva. The other goalscorer? Chris Pontius, who is slowly but surely moving towards his best form. The news was good in the stands too, as 20,162 - a season high at RFK - turned out on a breezy night.
However, it must also be noted that United can't play like this at RFK Stadium again without risking their pursuit of a fifth MLS Cup. It was a strangely uncertain performance by a team that has spent the whole season being confident and cruel against teams like the Chicago Fire. Being this tentative at home against the New England Revolution, for example, could easily turn into playoff elimination.
- Ryan Bacic: "...while a TV blackout may have resulted in one of 2014's smaller audiences outside RFK Stadium, 2014's best crowd gathered within, and United rewarded its sellout on Saturday with a 2-1 win over the visiting Chicago Fire - a win that, a year removed from a spot in the cellar, secured first place in the Eastern Conference and all-important home-field advantage."
- Pablo Maurer, via mlssoccer.com: "31 minutes in, United would draw first blood. Nick Deleon collected the ball near midfield and took a few touches forward before finding Eddie Johnson on the near sideline. The former Seattle Sounder forward’s cross was well struck, and Chris Pontius’ header from four yards out was even better, skimming just inside the far post - out of reach of Reynish. It was Pontius’ first league goal since September 2013."
- Sean Spence, via Hot Time In Old Town: "Then Ianni's terrible moment; Jeff Larentowicz had moved to the left-center to keep him comfy, but he still turned away from pressure with that little bit of panic in his mien; Chris Ritter, flat-footed, was in the way instead of creating space; so Ianni's gulping pass was always going to be underhit, was always going to fall perfectly to EJ. It's to Johnson's credit he didn't blow the opportunity, and DC had a lead they could truly sit and protect."
- Shane Murray, via mlssoccer.com: "(Patrick) Nyarko made a telling impact when he came in for Florent Sinama-Pongolle in the 62nd minute, but the Ghanaian was forced out of the game in the 83rd minute after falling and twisting his right knee. A club source confirmed that Nyarko will have an MRI on return to Chicago Sunday."
- Steve Goff, via washingtonpost.com: "Chicago answered in the 67th minute as Harry Shipp collected Patrick Nyarko’s through ball behind the back line and slipped the ball under the advancing Hamid for the seventh goal of his rookie year."
- Pablo Maurer, via mlssoccer.com: "United moved the ball well enough throughout the match but at times conceded a bit too much time and space, especially during stretches of a wide-open second half that saw the Fire string together a series of quality chances. After the match, several of United’s players agreed with that assessment, chalking the performance up to a tough week of training and suggesting that adjustments likely needed to be made."
- Adam M Taylor: "NDL and Fabi also combined for some really strong work in the corner as they tried to kill the game off late on - Nicky held off a couple defenders, before he and Fabi somehow 1-2'ed their way around 3 red shirts and into space before winning a corner; the two of them have ball skills to burn."
- Steve Goff, via washingtonpost.com: "The supporters’ groups turned their lower sections into currents of black-and-red flags. Players trotted over to the edge of the stands and posed for photos. ... 'Tonight’s a special night for our club and our players,' Coach Ben Olsen said. 'They have earned this, and I told them to make sure they go out there and reward themselves and reward the fans for the season they’ve had together.'"
|Rank||Player||What We Saw|
|1||Eddie Johnson||A goal and an assist for EJ in his first start since August 27th.|
|2||Harry Shipp||Was Chicago's main attacking hub and finished their only goal.|
|3||Chris Pontius||Scored his first goal in over a year and is slowly working himself back to top form.
- Bill Hamid, via dcunited.com: On how the team is feeling after completing a turnaround season. "It feels amazing, honestly. Last year was hell, but coming into this year, you know, we gained that experience. We knew that we weren’t going to allow that to happen to us anymore, so game by game we just focused in and week by week we focused in on each team that we had coming up. We didn’t look to the future, we just looked at the present and we dealt with teams every week. It was honestly a great regular season. Now going into the playoffs, we need to continue that confidence and that rhythm and get as many wins as possible."
- Chicago head coach Frank Yallop, via mlssoccer.com: On the Fire's season. "To be honest, it’s been good working with this group...We’ve struggled to win games, but we’ve not lost many. That was our 10th loss of the season; it’s not great, but it’s not terrible. The group itself has not given up, each player individually and collectively have been in every game, we’ve competed, the coaching staff have set them up to do their thing and they’ve executed, other than giving goals up at the wrong times, giving goals to the opposition and not finishing our chances. But that’s football."
- Sean Franklin, via dcunited.com: "This isn’t the only thing we want to win. We want to be successful in the playoffs and, you know, we set ourselves up with the home field. I am proud of the way the team played tonight."
I elected to close with Franklin's quote on the team's ambition because it applies strongly here. That first sentence from Franklin isn't going to happen if United plays "good enough" rather than actually playing good soccer. It was a fun night for fans, but that was down to the circumstances. In a vacuum, United played just well enough to see off a Fire team that has actually done fairly well against us all year despite not being very good. Hamid's early kick save on Sinama-Pongolle ended up being a big moment, and United shouldn't need that against an opponent like this.
However, it didn't take long after that save for United to find something close to a good rhythm, and the first goal - from Fabian Espindola dropping off the front line to win a header, to DeLeon drifting inside with the ball before playing EJ into the space he vacated, to the inch-perfect cross Johnson delivered, to Pontius fooling his man to get the space so that his header would be easy - was excellent.
The second goal wasn't too shabby either. Yes, it was a disaster from Chicago's perspective, but United fans have been waiting to see EJ follow a stepover with that burst of speed all season. It was confident, decisive, and ruthless, and that's what every team on the planet wants out of the guy leading the line.
Overall, though, there weren't too many performances that could universally be considered good. DeLeon and Hamid were probably the most consistent DCU players on the night, while Johnson, Pontius, and Espindola delivered the quality needed to make an otherwise adequate performance turn into three points.
The Last Word:
Here's hoping this C+ performance is the worst we see out of United from here on out. The win clinched first place, but that also means an Eastern Conference semifinal against either Sporting Kansas City, the Columbus Crew, or the New York Red Bulls. KC might actually be the most favorable opponent of that trio at the moment, given how United exposed them in Kansas and held them goalless over three games. However, Sporting may have figured out a couple of things in their 0-0 draw here a few weeks ago, playing out of a 4231 and being far more conservative than normal. My guess is that, facing the prospect of United countering his side to death again, Peter Vermes will remember that game and try to replicate what KC saw as a good result.
If not for two different stoppage-time errors - Espindola's panenka at Fedex Field and the failure to close either Wil Trapp or Justin Meram before the latter's 91st minute equalizer at Crew Stadium - the Black-and-Red would have two wins from three games against Columbus. Instead, the team from Ohio is the only team in the East to go unbeaten against United in 2014, and more importantly they're in excellent form right now. They're a unique challenge in the East, connecting passes (they're the best in MLS at that right now) and hoarding possession while getting the large majority of their goals from the midfield. Their style demands an awful lot out of Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud, and might actually require something other than the 442 in the road leg.
Finally, we come to the Red Bulls, who -along with some dubious refereeing, Mark Geiger - forced United to defend for long periods of time in all three meetings yet only scored once over 270 minutes. History points to a dramatic win for the good guys and more Metro Playoff Failure, but you can't take history on the field with you and make it win games for you. United should be able to expose NYRB's not-ready-for-playoff-soccer back four, but can they break the game up in the midfield to prevent the match from being about how many saves Hamid makes or how many headers and clearances are won by Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum?
Did you see enough out of United on Saturday, or were you also underwhelmed? What playoff opponent would you prefer?