It was no surprise the pitch at BMO Field was in poor condition as D.C. United took on Toronto FC on the shores of Lake Ontario in the first few days of spring. Given the brutal winter much of North America has suffered (and is still suffering), it's a challenge Major League Soccer must deal with in its northern-tier cities. What was surprising, perhaps, was how well Toronto performed given their new-look team. While the score was only 1-0 in favor of the home team, it could have easily been much worse for D.C. United if not for the heroics of Bill Hamid.
Steven Goff, via washingtonpost.com: "With goals and victories at a premium, a painful carryover from the rottenness of last season, D.C. United is left to measure progress with its new-fangled roster in intangible but unsubstantial ways. United was better in this defeat - a 1-0 outcome against Toronto FC on Saturday - than in a season-opening thumping two weeks ago. But it's a defeat, nonetheless."
Ben Bromley: "Bill Hamid was obviously the main of the match, with two great saves against Jermain Defoe and another against Dwayne De Rosario. Without Hamid, the game would have been closer to 3-0 or 4-0. For Toronto, it was Michael Bradley."
Mitchell Tierney, via wakingthered.com: "...Michael Bradley and Defoe were 1a and 1b in terms of player of the match for the home side..The defense that is supposed to be the weak-point of [Toronto FC] continues to be its strength, as they once again conceded the majority of possession to the away side. Doneil Henry and Steven Caldwell are heavily underrated as a defensive pairing, with the younger of the two especially having improved his game. While Justin Morrow hasn't exactly impressed, the unit completed by Mark Bloom/ Bradley Orr has consistently kept the opposition from converting possession into chances and more importantly, goals. But there is still plenty of room for improvement, and Ryan Nelson acknowledges this. "We're very well organized but I don't think we've seen the best of us," he said, adding "I think we still have a long way to go as a team"."
Ryan Tolmich, via soccerbyives.net: "Defoe's goal was the culmination of a counterattacking effort that gave D.C. United fits all game. Alvaro Rey dribbled around D.C. defenders at will, while Defoe had his fair share of chances on the afternoon, including a flick past Hamid that hit the right post. Bradley's play in the midfield also caused problems for the opposing defense throughout the game. The 26-year-old's passing skill was on full display, as the American international played distributor with a series of through balls that opened up the D.C. defense."
Ben Olsen, via dcunited.com: Do you see the improvement in the game despite the result? "Yes but it still doesn't feel great. It's a loss but I think when I look back I think we will see that we really took some steps forward. We didn't struggle. There are the things we worked on in the past few weeks and we implemented a lot of that. It was a day that things just didn't fall our way in our offensive third and hopefully that will come. On their goal, we cleared the ball and it goes right to Defoe. I think we needed that little bit of luck today to get the result...Whether it's the final ball or the final play, a lot of times when you lead teams that's the last to come and the hardest part to do, putting the ball in the net. But that's not an excuse; we've got a find a way to do it. Other teams that are new and not yet gelling are doing it. So we got to find a way to add that to a lot of the positives we saw today, or defensive shape was better today, our commitment and aggressiveness were elevated. Hopefully we can score some goals this coming week."
Toronto FC coach Ryan Nelsen, via dcunited.com: "I thought our performance was really good. It's been a little bit of an awkward game for us, when you know the expectations would be high and we knew the crowd would be out, we knew the field and we knew the conditions and it was going to be game where who made the mistake and who took the chance. It was always just going to be that. We had three really good chances in the first half to score and obviously controlled the game, but it just never came for us. Battling against that wind, I think that first half performance, even though it wasn't pretty on the eye, it set up for us to win that game."
Bobby Boswell, via dcunited.com: Tough Loss, what can you take away from this performance? "I think there were a lot of positives to take away, unfortunately we aren't judged on our positives we are judged on results. We lost to another conference opponent but we can be proud of the way the guys played for the most part, I thought we were all over them for a while. I think once we score one they are going to come in bunches. I thought Bill played a hell of a game, but unfortunately they pay that guy a lot of money to poach and he poached and got himself a goal so it was not meant to be tonight."
Toronto FC midfielder Michael Bradley, via dcunited.com: How did that striking duo look to you [Jermain and Gilberto]? "I thought they were both really sharp. They both worked their movement was really good. I thought as far as playing off of each other they did a really good job. You only have to look at the goal to see. Gilberto makes a great little run and is in on goal and Jermain is right there with him and when the keeper makes the save and Jermain's right there. I think those two are going continue to get better and better."
Luis Silva, via dcunited.com: Before the game you mentioned about playing behind two strikers this week instead of one, wondering how you felt that link up play was? "I felt it was pretty good, we got some good balls through but overall they defended very well and were very organized and kept us from getting shots and made it difficult."
When D.C. United reaches the end of the 2014 season, it is likely this game will go down as one of the highest possession totals the Black-and-Red will enjoy all year--62.8% according to the MLS stats. And yet, it didn't matter at all as Toronto FC was the much more dangerous team, while D.C. United rarely created scoring opportunities.
Credit must be given to Toronto FC since their management and coaching staff, under the leadership of Tim Leiweki and Ryan Nelsen respectively, have seemingly pieced together a perfect blend of DPs, supporting players, and tactics. Whether by design or by accident (or some combination of the two), they signed three DPs, two strikers (Gilberto and Jermain Defoe) and one midfielder (Michael Bradley) who can provide perfect service, and have instituted an early-season strategy of sitting back for large stretches of the match while relying on a blistering counterattack fueled by the strengths of their three new DPs. Nelsen is relying on his defense that looks better-than-advertised two matches into the season, while letting Bradley's pinpoint distribution out of the middle spring counter after counter by Defoe and Gilberto who are continually looking to make dangerous runs.
D.C. United has yet to show a strategy that leverages the strengths of its new DP and supporting players.
The Last Word:
Thirty two games are still to be played in the 2014 MLS regular season, but D.C. United needs to improve at every position (with the exception of goalie) before their next game, and fast. For me, the fact the defense has yet to come together to limit scoring chances is the most concerning of all the issues. Even if the team wasn't scoring, a lock down defense would mean the team was in every game while providing some space for the offense to find its rhythm. That's not to let the offense off the hook, however. Going back to last season, this team needs goals, and needs to find a way to play with the lead. The midfield is crucial to all of this, providing better screening for the defense, meaningfully possessing the ball, providing service for the attackers, and pressuring the opponents before they are able to quickly counter the defense.
Not to be melodramatic, but the next four weeks will likely tell the tale of the season. D.C. United now has three straight games at home, the first two against two teams that have yet to show anything this season (the Chicago Fire and the New England Revolution) and the third against our most fierce rivals (and current Supporters' Shield holders) who have also struggled. Then, a road trip to Columbus to see how we've progressed from week one against another rebuilt team--but a team getting the results that D.C. United isn't.
How critical is Saturday's match against Chicago? What personnel or formation changes should Ben Olsen make (if any)? How good will Toronto FC be this season?