It was the match D.C. United fans have been dreaming about for years. The Black-and-Red, on the road, against the best team in the Eastern Conference, with the chance to take the lead both in the conference and in the overall Supporters' Shield standings, playing their best game in recent memory, and walking away with a well-deserved and convincing win which could have been even worse, much worse. Saturday night's 3-0 win for United over Sporting Kansas City at Sporting Park was this and more, because now the rest of the league has been forced to take notice and realize the league's original super club is not a fluke in 2014, but is a legitimate contender this year for both the Shield and the Cup. The road to these trophies won't be easy, however, and D.C. United will have to continue to play near this level if they want to lift hardware at the end of the season.
ChestRockwell: "For D.C. United, tonight's visit to Sporting Kansas City was the biggest game of 2014 thus far. A win would take them to the top of the MLS table, but to do so they'd have to go on the road to a city they hadn't gotten three points from in seven years and beat Sporting, the defending MLS Cup champions. Fortunately for United, they offered up their best performance of the season just when they needed it the most, winning 3-0 on first-half goals from Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe, and Perry Kitchen."
Tate Steinlage, via soccerbyives.net: "...Saturday night it was all D.C. as United thrashed Sporting KC 3-0 to take back the top spot in the MLS Eastern Conference. United enjoyed perhaps the best seven-minute span in team history. The visitors struck three times between the 24th and 31st minutes off efforts from Fabian Espindola, Chris Rolfe, and Perry Kitchen to flatline what was a boisterous atmosphere at Sporting Park."
Ben Gartland, via thebluetestament.com: "The second half brought more of the same sloppy mistakes from Sporting KC that led to squandered opportunities. Twice DC United hit the post on open shots that almost extended the lead for the visitors. Graham Zusi did have a nice shot ten minutes into the second half that caromed off the post but for the most part Sporting were unable to find an substantial opportunities."
Steve Brisendine, via mlssoccer.com: "The match was the first in MLS history to feature two Homegrown players starting in goal - United's Bill Hamid and Sporting's Jon Kempin. Hamid won that matchup handily, finishing with three saves and his sixth shutout, while Kempin too often found himself isolated by D.C.'s smart runs into space."
Pablo Maurer, via mlssoccer.com: "For what it's worth, nobody in a raucous United locker room seemed content to rest on any laurels after the victory. [Perry] Kitchen himself summed it up well just before departing. "First place with 10 games to go doesn't mean much. We still have work to do.""
Richard Farley, via prosoccertalk.nbcsports.com: "D.C.'s going to be one of the top two in my Power Rankings next week. I'm tired of undervaluing what they've done (and what they are)...For whatever reason, things never clicked for D.C. United last season, with a three-win season leaving some surprised Olsen retained his job. This year, he has taken a collection of disparate parts, rejected by other franchises, and molded one of the best teams in the league, with a large part of the team's success [due] to his tactics and game management. [Olsen] is the runaway Coach of the Year, right now."
Ben Olsen, via dcunited.com: "They are extremely aggressive at home, and these games come down to if you can counter in the right way. Today, I think we were pretty sharp in that area and fortunately we punished them for it...It's still a long season. It's nice for these guys to be on top for all the hard work they have put in. They get that there is more to this than right now, and we have got to quickly refocus and go to LA [Galaxy], which is equally as tough a challenge as this. We are really excited to go out there and on to face New York next weekend."
Sean Franklin, via dcunited.com: "[Sporting Park] is a tough place to play. We knew it was going to take a group effort. We talked about working for each other. Everyone was getting behind the wall. We were working as a team, were aggressive and came out with a shutout. I think it's a big win, not just for where we stand, but it's a statement game across the League."
Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler, via soccerbyives.net: "I think we'd be lying if we say that we weren't a little bit shellshocked. You never expect to give up three goals at home."
Sean Franklin, via dcunited.com: On the game plan heading into the match. "We were told to push them. They played most of their starters in the Champions League game and we had a chance to rest some of ours. So we knew that they might get tired and we just wanted to keep pushing, pick the right time to press and today we played awesome."
Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes, via dcunited.com: On whether Tuesday's CONCACAF Champions League match affected this game. "Absolutely not. D.C. was good on threes counters, which our back four was absolutely horrendous on. It's one of those days where they came down on three routine plays and they scored three goals because of the way we were organized at the back. There has been a lot of credit given to our back four over a long period of time, but the way that they performed tonight, they're going to get the credit for giving up three goals. But this has nothing to do with playing against Real Estelí."
Davy Arnaud, via dcunited.com: "It's a big win. There is no other way to put it. We're getting later on in the season now, and we're fighting for first and second so we knew how important the game was and we're obviously happy to win the game. The locker room is happy right now...The job is certainly not done. We still have tough games coming up. We still have to keep grinding away and keep doing the same things. We've been preaching that all year. It's not just game to game, but within the game, you get the feeling in the group even up 3-0 with ten minutes left guys are still saying, ‘Let's grind, let's get it done.' It's a great mentality to have."
Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler, via dcunited.com: "We lost 3-0 at home. Obviously it was a terrible performance from us, one of the worst since I've been here. We have to put this one behind us fast because we have a lot of big games coming up...D.C. is good team. Give them credit, they made us pay and finished their chances. But we weren't good enough tonight. We knew what to expect from them, and at times we made it easy for them. We were sloppy in our distribution; we were caught out of position. Like I said, we want the next game to come fast because this just isn't acceptable."
A victory this comprehensive can be attributed to many things, but perhaps it's just time to acknowledge D.C. United played a superior tactical match against a club regarded as having one of the most consistent and effective tactical approaches in MLS. Fairly or not, Ben Olsen has never been known as a tactical mastermind. Rather, we tend to focus on his ability to motivate, to build teamwork, and to inspire hard work and grit. In this game specifically, however, and in 2014 in general, we've seen his team play consistent winning soccer built upon a tactical foundation we lovingly refer to as Benny-ball. But look at what Benny-ball did on Saturday night.
D.C. United absorbed the opening 15-20 minutes of heavy pressure Sporting applied at the start of the game. While SKC fought to get a quick opening goal to be able to lock down the remainder of the game, United's defense did an excellent job of ensuring all the good chances for the home team came from outside the box, knowing Bill Hamid could comfortably handle almost any shot which was on frame. In fact, for the game, Sporting had 12 shots (as compared to D.C. United's 16), but 8 of them were from outside the box. And of the four shots from inside the box, only 1 was from inside the penalty spot (just barely). Additionally, Perry Kitchen and Davy Arnaud did an excellent job channelizing the Sporting attack down the flanks, forcing them to rely on crosses (SKC had 29 for the match, compared to United's 7) which played to the aerial strengths of United's central defense composed of Bobby Boswell and Steve Birnbaum (and backed up by Hamid). BTW, if you like whoscored.com player ratings, check out the ratings for D.C. United, and revel in the 8.99 rating achieved by Kitchen.
Throughout the game, United was willing to concede possession to Sporting (62.4%), but for the most part, it was meaningless possession. There were only two 5-minute periods, both in the second half, in which United out-possessed Sporting, but again, it didn't matter as D.C. United was by far the more threatening team. And again, this ability to attack when conceding possession is part of this team's tactical prowess this year. With the players on the field Saturday night, Fabian Espindola, Luis Silva, Chris Rolfe, Nick DeLeon, supported by the central midfield duo and Sean Franklin and Taylor Kemp helping on the flanks, United could get forward quickly, with multiple attacking options, and enough creative flare in the attack to give any team preparing to play them headaches.
Ben Olsen and his coaching staff out-coached Sporting Kansas City on Saturday night, while the players out-played their Sporting rivals. It was a complete victory, from the bench to the pitch.
The Last Word:
Six teams have now separated themselves in the MLS standings, and this looks like the group which will fight for the Supporters' Shield: Seattle Sounders (45 pts), D.C. United (43 pts), FC Dallas (42 pts), Sporting Kansas City (42 pts), Real Salt Lake (42 pts), and LA Galaxy (40 pts). So, let's look at the remaining league schedule for each team (and as a reminder, D.C. United and Sporting each have three more CONCACAF Champions' League matches during this stretch as well).
Here are the games yet to be played in MLS rounds 24-29 for the teams currently competing for the Supporters' Shield:
|Round 24||Round 25||Round 26||Round 27||Round 28||Round 29|
|D.C. United||@ LA||NYRB||@ Vancouver||@ NYRB||@ Chicago|
|Seattle Sounders||Colorado||@ Chivas||RSL||@ NYRB||@ Dallas|
|FC Dallas||@ Chicago||@ RSL||Vancouver||@ LA|
|Sporting Kansas City||Houston||@ New England||@ NYRB||@ Chivas|
|Real Salt Lake||@ San Jose||Dallas||@ Seattle||Colorado|
|LA Galaxy||DC||@ Chivas||Colorado||@ Montreal||@ San Jose||Dallas|
And here are the games yet to be played in rounds 30-34:
|Round 30||Round 31||Round 32||Round 33||Round 34|
|D.C. United||Philadelphia||Sporting||@ Houston||Chicago||@ Montreal|
|Seattle Sounders||Chivas||@ Colorado||Vancouver||@ LA||LA|
|FC Dallas||Seattle||@ Vancouver||LA||@ Colorado||Portland|
|Sporting Kansas City||New England||@ DC||Chicago||@ Philadelphia||NYRB|
|Real Salt Lake||@ Vancouver||@ Chivas||San Jose||@ Portland||Chivas|
|LA Galaxy||NYRB||Toronto||@ Dallas||Seattle||@ Seattle|
Who has the inside track for winning the Supporters' Shield? Well, it depends on what you value down the stretch.
|Games Played||Games Remaining||Home Games Remaining||Road Games Remaining||Games Against Top 6||Toughest Schedule Remaining of Top 6|
|D.C. United||24||10||4||6||2||4 (11.80)|
|Seattle Sounders||24||10||5||5||4||3 (10.10)|
|FC Dallas||25||9||4||5||4||1 (8.33)|
|Sporting Kansas City||25||9||4||5||1||6 (12.11)|
|Real Salt Lake||25||9||4||5||2||5 (11.89)|
|LA Galaxy||23||11||6||5*||5||2 (8.55)|
Prior to looking at these schedules, I would have thought D.C. United had the most difficult path to the Supporters' Shield given the number of road games they still have yet to play (6 road games). Interestingly, however, all the remaining contenders each have 5 road games of their own to contend with (although LA gets to play one of their road games in their home stadium against Chivas USA, and no doubt there will probably be more Galaxians in attendance than Goat supporters). Just looking at the number of home and road games, we will give LA the nod for the most favorable schedule down the stretch. But, what if we look at games played and difficulty of remaining schedule?
Games in hand is an interesting stat to look at since it can be viewed as positive or negative. Do you have hope your team can win their games in hand and pile up points while catching up to other teams in the number of games played? Or, would you rather your team have already played those games and put their point total as a mark on the wall for others to chase? You decide, but I'm glad D.C. United has played one more game than LA and already secured those three points.
Finally, which of the contending teams has the toughest schedule remaining this year? If we use the the Supporters' Shield standings as of today, the last column above shows which contending team has the toughest schedule based on the average SS position. The first number (1 through 6) shows which team has the toughest schedule (the lower the number, the tougher the schedule), and the number in the parenthesis shows the average SS position as of today of their remaining opponents. So, from this view, clearly Dallas and LA have the toughest road by a fairly wide margin, then Seattle, then the remaining three teams are tightly bunched with the most favorable schedules. If we just want to look at which team plays the other contenders the most, LA faces the other teams 5 times, Dallas and Seattle face them 4 times, D.C. United and RSL face those teams twice, and Sporting only faces those teams once.
So, who has the toughest path to the Supporters' Shield? It's hard to say, but I feel better about D.C. United's chances after Saturday night's game, and after looking at all the contenders' remaining schedules.
Why can't D.C. United win the Shield? With the players coming together as they have, and with the coaching staff firing on all cylinders as well, why not? Why can't this be the year the Black-and-Red raise trophy #14 (or #15)?
What did Saturday night's win at Sporting Park say to you about this D.C. United team and its coaching staff?