Like a Rorschach inkblot test, Saturday's 2-2 draw between D.C. United and the Chicago Fire offered fans of every opinion and stripe the ability to see something different in the performance of the Black-and-Red. For me, the post-match interviews correlated to what I saw on the field for the first time this season--which is a good thing. But, even as the quality of United's play offered a glimpse of this team headed in a better direction, the inkblot also revealed a defense badly in need of improvement and a franchise losing its grip on an ever dwindling base of paying fans.
Ryan Bacic: "As a fierce rain poured down at RFK Stadium Saturday, the fouls and goals did, too. It was an afternoon of abundance in a lot of ways--just not in the ways that mattered for D.C. United. RFK drew a paltry 9,445 as the Black-and-Red settled for a solitary point in a 2-2 draw with the Chicago Fire, leaving two more on the table thanks to a late equalizer from Quincy Amarikwa."
dlewis: "The conceded goals today came down to a porous back line rather then a leaky midfield, which is better than our first two games. Sean Franklin's inability to handle Soumare and Jeff Parke's refusal to acknowledge Quincy Amarikwa as someone he should mark resulted in the goals. And while United's offense is showing signs of life, the defense is still a cacophony of mind-boggling errors. The mess in the back is personnel based, but it could be helped by having more dedicated two-way players in the midfield, which would also allow the winger (particularly Nick DeLeon) to push more up the field. In it's current incarnation, the back four can't handle only having one holding mid and Perry Kitchen would probably stand to improve from having help in the midfield as well."
Roman Stubbs, via washingtonpost.com: "D.C. (0-2-1) entered Saturday's contest badly in need of a win, and although it didn't earn one on a sloppy day against the Fire (0-1-3), the third match of the season at least represented progress. Following a busy offseason in which it honed in on its offensive deficiencies, United looked crisp in the first 25 minutes Saturday after opening the season with slumbering losses to Columbus and Toronto...Still, D.C. let the win slip away even though Olsen said he suspected the team "quadrupled" its scoring opportunities compared with its previous two games. United, which lost midfielder Luis Silva in the first half to an apparent ankle injury ("I don't think it's a day or two," Olsen said of the injury), just couldn't overcome breakdowns in the back third."
Pablo Maurer, via mlssoccer.com: "D.C. United took the field on Saturday afternoon at RFK Stadium in search of their first victory in seven months. And for a while, it looked like they might just get it. The Chicago Fire, however, had other plans. Fire forward Quincy Amarikwa's 82nd-minute equalizer denied United what would've been a precious victory, earning the Fire a 2-2 draw in front of 9,445 rain-soaked fans at RFK Stadium. D.C. were dominant for long stretches of the first half, playing the type of attacking, free-flowing soccer that's eluded them for over a year."
Cliff Starkey, via soccerbyives.net: "It looked like D.C. United would capitalize first, as multiple poor defensive clearances by the Fire gave D.C. United a handful of very clear, realistic chances to go in front. Eddie Johnson looked set to take the game over early, but Sean Johnson bailed his team out time and time again. D.C. United fans were agonizingly close to celebrating a goal by their new Designated Player, but his shot from outside the box curled just wide of the post. Almost [on] script for those suffering D.C. United fans, the Fire opened scoring against the run of play. Rookie Harrison Shipp's perfectly-placed corner kick found a rising Hurtado, who powerfully headed the ball into the top corner of the net."
Ben Olsen, via dcunited.com: "I thought Fabi trusted his teammates more than he did last game playing and moved well. I thought Eddie was a threat all night long up top. I thought Perry was fantastic and I thought Davy Arnaud, in particular, gave us a real bite and a real energy in the amount of second balls and breaks he started. You know, still stuff to work on with our backs, we should win games that we score two goals in."
Chicago Fire coach Frank Yallop, via dcunited.com: On his feeling coming into the match. "Confident, you know, we have not lost in two and I always look at the positive if I can, and you know we haven't lost in three, that's the way I look at it. You know, we haven't won a game yet this season, but again it's not easy to win games especially away from home in this league so we are looking forward to playing at home next weekend and hopefully we can get that in."
Perry Kitchen, via dcunited.com: "We definitely stressed style of play throughout training this week and I think you could see that in our movements, and how we moved the ball one-two touch; I thought we had some good sequences and that stuff translates. So as long as we keep working on it, I think we'll see more of that."
Chicago Fire forward Quincy Amarikwa, via dcunited.com: "It's the third straight game we got points, I mean that's how you got to look at it. Not dropping points, especially on the road, is huge in this league. If you look at teams that make the playoffs on a regular basis, they don't lose, they at least get a draw or a win and you know that's how it goes. And if we can come away with points every single time on the road, I will take them."
Nick DeLeon, via dcunited.com: On disappointment with the draw. "Yeah definitely, there are a lot of guys who are disappointed and I'm disappointed because we did have so many chances, but if you look at the positive, it was a ton better and we are starting to create chances and that was our problem before. We've just got to take our licks and move forward."
Chicago Fire keeper Sean Johnson, via dcunited.com: On the team's defensive effort. "I thought it was good, to be fair. I thought it was just a bit unfortunate. The second goal there was a bit of a pinball action around. They got good forcing and I thought we had some similar situations where we had the ball in their box and things didn't really fall our way, but that's just the way it goes, that's soccer for you. I think we've done well and at the end of the day we got to look at it. We got a point. We came in and I think we deserve three. We played well enough to do three, but it is just up to us to really push over that hump and turn the size in winnings."
Relegate US, commenter on soccerbyives.net: "Why was this game on national television? Terrible for promoting soccer and MLS in the United States. Sorry, DC, but you can't be on television anymore."
The emotional arc of the young 2014 MLS season took a slight course change on Saturday afternoon in the rain at RFK Stadium. Following an offseason which brought guarded optimism for many D.C. United fans due to the significant turnover from last year's squad, the hopes of opening night were crushed by a Federico Higuain-fueled shellacking at the hands of the Columbus Crew. Then came the return of last season's familiar pessimism, yet a desire to see how we could do against the rebuilt Toronto FC side featuring the two biggest winter acquisitions in the league (Michael Bradley and Jermain Defoe). After a close but convincing loss on the shores of Lake Ontario, we heard about "progress", "positives", and "steps forward". And maybe, just maybe, if we squinted and looked at just the right angle there was something we didn't really recognize which could possibly/maybe/OK-I'll-believe-you-just-this-one-time be an improvement over the first game. Entering the third game of the season, however, resignation was setting in: the D.C. United of 2014 was still the same D.C. United of 2013, just with new pieces filling the same unproductive roles and obtaining the same non-winning results.
Yet, on Saturday D.C. United looked different. They were entertaining. Black and Red United founder Martin Shatzer said it this way on the gamethread:
I had fun watching this game...I vaguely remember this feeling. I actually had fun watching a United match!
Personally, I saw a team with a focused commitment to getting the ball to Eddie Johnson and Fabian Espindola, with dangerous early through balls creating chances on goal, as well as quality crosses into the box putting a lot of pressure on the Fire. It's true these chances diminished as Luis Silva and LEWIS NEAL! left the game, but Nick DeLeon looked consistently dangerous linking with the forwards while also showing hustle on defense. No, Chicago doesn't have a particularly good defense, but they do have a great goalie in Sean Johnson who has played very well against D.C. United (including on Saturday night) since flubbing badly in United's 2-0 US Open Cup semifinal win last August.
I also saw a team battle back from a first-half deficit (due to a Fire goal completely against the run of play) to regain the lead, the exact same type of emotion-draining goal they gave up in their last game against Chicago which resulted in a 3-0 loss to the Fire. This determination to battle back and take the lead, even if the lead wasn't held, was absent last year. In fact, D.C. United never overcame a deficit of any kind last year to take a lead in a league match.
But, D.C. United can't stop and smell the cherry blossoms yet or count their new stadiums before they're built. Among other issues, this is a team needing to learn to hold a lead, and a defense badly underperforming preseason expectations.
The Last Word:
If there was anything which seemed a sure bet entering this season, it was the expected improvement of the defense. With three veteran MLS starters brought in during the offseason and a player with La Liga experience rounding out the back four, the defense was expected to be a source of strength early in the season, particularly while the new offense was getting geared up. Yet, three games into 2014, the defense doesn't seem better either qualitatively and quantitatively. Last year, D.C. United gave up two goals in its first three games, and for the entire season conceded goals at the rate of 1.74 goals per game (59 total goals against). This season, the team has given up six goals in its first three games, for a rate of 2.0 goals per game (on pace for 68 goals against this season).
On Saturday night, despite D.C. United tilting the field heavily in its favor for the first 25 minutes, the team gave up a goal on a corner. A mental lapse in which Sean Franklin, marking Jhon Kennedy Hurtado from the front shoulder, stared at the ball while Hurtado stepped back as Franklin continued to move forward gave the big Fire defender enough space to knock the ball into the net. Similarly, a lack of focus on the final goal saw Christian get nutmegged by Patrick Nyarko (which happens to defenders time to time), but somehow both center backs failed to closely mark Quincy Amarikwa as he stood freely in the box 7-9 yards from the goal for a long time until he slotted a nice pass past Bill Hamid.
If D.C. United is going to compete this year, the defense has to reach its full potential and quickly. The offense is a work in progress, and will continue to be judged on its development through the early part of the season. So far, however, it looks like the high water mark for the offense (the first half against the Fire) is higher than the high water mark for the defense (the first half against Toronto?). Defenses are supposed to gel more quickly than offenses, so we need to see major improvement and fast.
One final note. Attendance at RFK Stadium on Saturday night was 9,445. Yes it was raining. Yes it was an afternoon kickoff. But, this was the worst attendance since September, 2009, when D.C. United beat the Kansas City Wizards 1-0 in front of 8,033 fans on a Wednesday night. It's stating the obvious, but D.C. United home attendance is in crisis right now. This problem hits the team's financial bottomline and has to have an impact on the players as well. We'll have more to say about attendance later this week in our Setting the Stage for April post, but this is a story to watch closely as it unfolds throughout the season.
What are your last words on D.C. United's draw with the Chicago Fire? Are you encouraged, disheartened, or waiting to put Saturday's performance into context based on how the team plays next week?