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The Last Word: D.C. United Beats Sporting Kansas City Playing Benny-Ball

Benny-ball is working in 2014. It's not always pretty, it leaves us fans wanting more, and it's been mistaken for poor officiating, but the positive results continue to pile up.

Sporting felt wronged at the end of the match. Their reasons were mystifying.
Sporting felt wronged at the end of the match. Their reasons were mystifying.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Sporting Kansas City departed RFK Stadium on Saturday night grumbling about their treatment at the hands of the referee and D.C. United. They lost to their hosts 1-0 in a result which ran counter to the match stats. Sporting dominated on the boxscore, but D.C. United did what mattered most in soccer--namely, they scored a goal while keeping a clean sheet. It wasn't the first time this season the good guys got a result while conceding the stats sheet to their opponent, and it likely won't be the last.

Their Words:

- Steven Goff, via "D.C. United extended its unbeaten streak at RFK Stadium to seven with a 1-0 victory over Sporting Kansas City on Saturday, pulling the club into second place in MLS’s Eastern Conference and back within two points of front-running New England. Fabian Espindola scored his seventh goal of the campaign, an intended cross to the back post that caught goalkeeper Eric Kronberg stepping forward instead of back and floated into the top corner. United (6-4-3) has lost twice in the past 11 outings and conceded two goals in the last six home matches."

- Ryan Keefer: "While some of what occurred for D.C. United was not new to the team, they managed to not only defeat a foe they had not beaten in more than four years, they did so in front of the largest crowd at RFK Stadium in 18 months, beating Sporting Kansas City 1-0 to a happy group of 18,522."

- Roman Stubbs, via "Saturday’s win could prove pivotal for United, which overtook Sporting Kansas City for the second spot in the Eastern Conference. And although it came against a club that has been decimated by injuries and World Cup commitments, United had to scramble with a series of plays to make it happen. Espindola, who came off the bench and played just 30 minutes in last week’s loss at New England, embraced his return to the starting lineup. A flu bug has leveled the team the past 10 days, United Coach Ben Olsen said, and Espindola caught the brunt of it Wednesday. "He’s a warrior, man," Olsen said of Espindola, who missed two practices earlier this week. "He was throwing up Wednesday, all day. He’s been out for two days and shows up on Friday ready to go.""

- Ben Olsen, via On Espíndola's season. "I think he has a good role for us. You know, I think he needs freedom and he needs to be able to offset defenses and not be constricted. I think we’ve given him that here. I certainly think he has been as good as anybody in this league up to this point, but no, it does not surprise me because he has been doing it for a long time in this league, and he is a guy you never wanted to play against as a coach or a player because how unpredictable he is, how ruthless he is and his mentality."

- Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes, via "I have nothing but praise for [my] team. We drove the game here, 61 percent possession, against 39 for them. Their the home team so from that perspective and all the chances and everything that we did, you know, look we tried to drive the game and tried to play to high tempo and the second half was at many times at a snails pace in regards to the management of the game. There was too many things that was going on within the game that I think should have been managed by the referee crew, you know, especially when there are fouls and guys are kicking balls away those are things. That just needs to be taken care of."

- Peter Vermes, via On failing to even the score. "Yeah, every time we went forward obviously they bunkered in and they tried to counter. That was their game, but we had some very good chances in and around the box. A couple unlucky ones, especially in the first half. We had a great ball inside the six-yard box that banged off a couple guys as opposed to getting a clean shot off, but that happens sometimes."

- Fabian Espindola, via "We ran a lot tonight. Tonight it wasn’t our best night, or maybe they were better than us with the ball. But we did a really good job defending and keeping the shutout...I’m very tired. I don’t know if it’s because of [the illness] or Kansas [City], the way they move the ball. I’m so tired right now. I wasn’t able to train for two days, and I think that was a big deal."

- Fabian Espindola, via On the result. "I think they’re way better than us with the ball, especially in midfield. We ran a lot tonight. I think it was a very even game."

- Bill Hamid, via "When we look back at this during the week, I think we’re going to look in the mirror and say, ‘We could’ve been a little better on the ball. We could’ve kept possession a little better. We could’ve been a little more dangerous.’ It shows our character that we’re able to keep zeroes and get three points out of these matches."

- Sporting Kansas City keeper Eric Kronberg, via "I saw that [Fabián] Espíndola had the ball out wide to my left, and out of the corner of my eyesight I saw [Eddie] Johnson coming across to the base of the goal. So, I took a step forward expecting him to cross it to him and Espíndola saw it and happened to chip it over my head. I don’t know if he was intending to do it, if he was great play by him and great vision by him, but you know, unlucky. I probably should have stayed on the line and let my defense handle that, but I will definitely learn from this one and move on."

My Words:

Watching the game on MLS Live, the most surprising part was the post-game interview by the Kansas City TV crew with Sporting coach Peter Vermes. While congratulating his team's ability to "drive" the play while on the road, he then blamed the referee for not managing the game well. In a mystifying comment which seemed to conflate D.C. United's defensive tactics, oft-used (and perfectly acceptable) time wasting techniques, and the referee's whistle, Vermes' comments seemed almost completely unrelated to the match I saw. Sure, we've all seen games where there are controversial calls which go against the losing team, and when the coach then mentions the referee in his post-game comments it makes some sense. But at no time during Saturday night's game did I ever think Sporting was going to be particularly aggreived by the referee.

Instead of being a game decided by the officiating, this was the kind of game MLS in general (and this season's D.C. United squad in particular) sees on a semi-regular basis. It's not an uncommon narrative: a team on the short end of the possession stat gets an early goal against the run of play (possession favored Sporting ~56%-44% when Espindola scored), and then consciously decides to become more defensive in an effort to protect the lead. By the end of the game, the possession stat looks even worse (Sporting ended the game with 61% possession), and the number of shots tilts largely in favor of the losing team (16 to 7 in favor of Sporting). It's not the officiating. It's not cheating by the winning team. It's soccer. It's MLS. It's this season's D.C. United. Coaches know that.

The Last Word:

Just as Sporting Kansas City has adopted the personality of their coach, this year's D.C. United is embodying all the intangibles Ben Olsen has talked about during his tenure as coach. They are hardworking, tough, gritty, solid in the back, and winning without dominating statistics. In 2013, Olsen's comments about these qualities seemed misplaced given the results unfolding on the field, but this year (as in 2012) it's clear Benny-ball is working. And while it rarely leaves D.C. United fans satisfied with how the result is earned, it means the team has been in every game since they lost their first two games to open the season.

It also means D.C. United is a very difficult team for their opponents to prepare for. With a player having a truly special year (Espindola), players who can hurt you at any moment (Eddie Johnson and Chris Rolfe), and role players who also contribute offensively in spots (Davy Arnaud, LEWIS NEAL!, Nick DeLeon, Luis Silva, etc.), D.C. United is unpredicatable going forward while also having the ability to absorb a lot of pressure with their stout defense before even having to rely on a USMNT player pool keeper (Bill Hamid) to keep you off the board.

Hopefully before the season is over, D.C. United will start firing on all cylinders in all phases of the games. This hasn't happened yet, but the team is earning results and has earned its current 5th place in the MLS Supporters' Shield standings. And, as regular commenter and FanPoster itwasi pointed out, success at this point in the season is normally a very solid indicator of how the team will finish the season.

What's your take on Benny-ball? Will this approach hold up next week vs Columbus and into the remainder of the season?