Road games against the Western Conference's elite sides are not easy in a vacuum, and the challenge is made even more difficult when forced to play on short rest. However, that doesn't fully explain D.C. United's dreadful first half display tonight. The Black-and-Red repeatedly turned the ball over while failing to close down their hosts, falling behind 3-0 before finally falling to the LA Galaxy by a score of 4-1. Alan Gordon, Omar Gonzalez, and Baggio Husidic had LA's first-half strikes, while Landon Donovan finished the game off by converting a controversially awarded penalty kick. United's goal came after Leonardo glanced a cross past Jaime Penedo under heavy pressure from Eddie Johnson.
It was barely over a minute into the match that the Galaxy took the lead. A horrific pass out of the back from Bobby Boswell went straight to Landon Donovan, who immediately surged forward. LA's quick reaction to the turnover gave them a 4v4 break while United was forced to scramble to go from being spread out for possession purposes to getting compact to defend.
Boswell's error was compounded by an attempt to step high and catch Gordon offside while the rest of the defense had started running backward to recover. Donovan put Gordon in behind the back four, but the veteran striker's lack of speed allowed Steve Birnbaum to close him down. Gordon showed some great awareness, though, to keep the chance alive by deftly passing the ball through Birnbaum's legs to Marcelo Sarvas. The Brazilian found himself closed down by Bill Hamid and a sprinting Taylor Kemp, but Kemp's toe-poke bounced off an unsuspecting Birnbaum and fell to Gordon, who had kept his legs moving and found himself with an empty net to score on. The goal came with just 74 seconds on the clock.
The goal didn't serve as much of a wake-up call for United, who repeatedly gave the ball away under pressure that was less than withering while also letting the Galaxy stretch the field out and play their style of game. Sean Franklin nearly put Luis Silva through on goal, but LA's chances were far stronger. Juninho's exquisite through ball in the 10th minute - following a poor touch from Silva - gave Gordon a great chance to score another, but he blazed his shot wide in part thanks to Hamid's ability to stay big in the goal.
Hamid came up even bigger in the 19th minute when he conjured up a kick save to stop a point-blank shot by Gyasi Zardes. The chance came from a throw-in, as Boswell drifted way too far wide to help Franklin double Zardes. The error was compounded when they let Zardes get away with ease. Meanwhile, Husidic had run across Kemp and touched the ball to Zardes, who did well to avoid Birnbaum's challenge before hooking a shot that looked destined for the back of the net only to find Hamid's right leg.
The mistakes continued for United in the 25th minute. Hamid could be heard on TV telling Kemp to clear a hopeful ball into the box, but the second-year left back instead flicked the ball out for a corner kick. Donovan's ensuing service dropped around the penalty spot, where Omar Gonzalez reached a leg around Birnbaum to slap the ball past Hamid. Gonzalez - who now has three goals in five games - might be a center back, but he produced a volley that most strikers would be proud of.
After Hamid came up with another sharp save on Zardes, LA would essentially finish the game as a contest in first half stoppage time. This time, at least, LA had to execute at a high level. A lengthy passing sequence from the Galaxy ended with AJ DeLaGarza sending in a low cross for Husidic to prod past Hamid from the top of the six yard box. United contributed, though; at one point during the passing move, United had five players within three yards of Donovan, but no one made a tackle. The string of passes was comfortably over twenty, and may in fact have set a record in recent MLS play:
26-passes would be the longest sequence leading to a goal in @MLS since at least the 2009 season - as far back as we have Opta data.— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) August 28, 2014
After halftime, United at least seemed busier without the ball; with it, however, they still struggled to connect passes. However, a goal seemingly out of nowhere sparked the Black-and-Red to life. United suddenly produced a good passing sequence that found Lewis Neal wide on the right. His cross was batted away by goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, but Alex Caskey sprinted over to collect the loose ball. In plenty of space, Caskey shifted the ball to his preferred right foot to curl a bouncing cross in for a hard-charging Eddie Johnson. In real time, it was hard to tell if Johnson, Leonardo, or Penedo had touched the ball, or if it simply had thread the needle. Ensuing replays revealed that the ball had been grazed Leonardo's toe, diverting it past Penedo and in to make it 3-1 after 58 minutes.
The goal immediately provoked a reaction from both teams. On the hour mark, Donovan ripped a sitter several yards wide after Gordon had done well to knock down a clipped ball from Sarvas to the back post. Four minutes later, Fabian Espindola - only just into the game as a substitute - stripped Leonardo of the ball and found Johnson, who in turn backheeled the ball for Franklin. The former Galaxy right back made good contact, but Penedo managed to fight his powerful shot off. On the ensuing corner, a rehearsed play gave Boswell a chance to hit a one-timer from Espindola's rolling service, but Penedo came up with another save.
The game had become end-to-end, and in the 66th minute it was LA's turn to threaten again. Hamid once again came up with a kick save on Zardes, this time after Donovan played him into a promising spot with a clever outside-of-the-foot pass. Two minutes later, a collision following an LA free kick nearly saw the ball carom into an empty net, but Franklin was on hand to carry the ball away from danger. Back up at the other end, Johnson and Espindola combined to create a threat, and Johnson's lob into the middle was nearly headed into his own goal by - you guessed it - Leonardo.
With all this action, another goal was bound to come. Unfortunately, it took some heavy involvement from referee Kevin Stott, who had up to this point been quietly effective. Robbie Rogers was denied by yet another Hamid kick save, but on the ensuing corner Stott awarded the Galaxy a penalty kick. Broadcaster Dave Johnson said that the official word from the StubHub! Center was for a shove by Birnbaum on Gonzalez. Replays showed some slight contact from Birnbaum's hand on Gonzalez's shoulder, but the call seemed extraordinarily harsh. Donovan slotted home the ensuing penalty kick, making it 4-1 after 75 minutes.
Where United's goal filled the game with energy, Donovan's conversion from the spot killed the game off. The Galaxy strung together some long passing sequences along their back four as both teams seemed to accept the final score.
Despite the loss, United remains atop the Eastern Conference and returns to action on Sunday, when they'll take on the hated New York Red Bulls at RFK Stadium. The Galaxy, meanwhile, pulled into a tie with United in the Supporters Shield race on 43 points.