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The last word on D.C. United vs Chicago Fire: Late-game goals and magic numbers

It was a strange game against the Fire. There was much to admire from D.C. United, but then a long-standing narrative surfaced. At least the schedule gets easier the remainder of the season.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday night saw one of the stranger games of the season as D.C. United tied the Chicago Fire 3-3 in the suburbs of Chicago.  United fielded a non-traditional Starting XI since three of their big scoring weapons were injured or suspended.  Then they went down 0-2.  Then they stormed back to take the lead 3-2 (proving a 2-goal lead truly is the most dangerous scoreline in soccer? No...) behind the free-kick mastery of Luis Silva.  Then they gave up a late-game goal to settle for the draw.  United ended up being satisfied with their single point knowing they lowered their magic number against each team in the conference, while the Fire were just short of devastated while doing what they do better than anyone.

Their Words:

- Steven Goffvia  "Luis Silva has served two important functions for first-place D.C. United this season: scoring during Fabian Espindola's summer absence and, upon Espindola's return, forming a menacing partnership with the fiery forward. Espindola missed Saturday night's affair with the Chicago Fire. Silva knew his role. With two goals in short order, Silva sparked a comeback from a two-goal deficit and helped United earn a 3-3 draw before 17,279 at Toyota Park."

ChestRockwell:  "Normally, games involving a desperate team during the latter stages of a given MLS season become tense, chippy affairs where chances are at a premium. The Chicago Fire didn't follow the script tonight though, and in the end D.C. United found themselves in a wild, back-and-forth game that saw both teams take the lead before ending 3-3 at Toyota Park. Luis Silva scored two goals - pushing himself ahead of Fabian Espindola for the team lead - for United, while Bobby Boswell poked in a third to give United a brief lead. The Fire, meanwhile, scored via Jeff Larentowicz, Quincy Amarikwa, and Matt Watson...In the end, United was probably the happier team with the tie given the moribund opening 40 minutes and the fact that they came to Toyota Park on short rest. The Black-and-Red increased their Eastern Conference lead to three points, while the draw means that Chicago has equaled the MLS record for ties in a season. Naturally, they pull even with themselves, as the Fire also had 16 ties in 2011. Next up for United is a CONCACAF Champions League match Wednesday night against Tauro FC."

- Sean Spencevia  "United are not in preseason, it should be noted. The odd nature of this season has seen to it that the Fire - in former years always participants in the bacchanal of postseason - are now in recovery from that sort of wild living. Not so United - their party is just beginning; for them, it's the heart of the 2014 stretch drive. Once they found themselves down two clear goals to the No. 9 team on the Eastern Conference standings, they played like it...Good news is this isn't two points dropped at home [for the Fire]; it's just a fun night of football as we all get ready for 2015. And that makes the whole thing go down a lot more smoothly, no?"

- Rusty Silber, via  "Still, the Fire can't find ways to pick up a victory and there appears to be no answer to solve the problem lately. "There's something missing from us as a group," Yallop said. "We're going to keep going and keep fighting. We should have had more points out of the 16 ties. Yes, the table doesn't lie, we're in a position that we are giving points away. Still pleased with the game and we were able to come away with a point"...DC United has been struggling of late, but with the point have improved its mark to 14-9-6, 48 points. It also helped that the team was able to get a few goals after not scoring in its last two league matches. "I'm happy with it," said DC United coach Ben Olsen after seeing the team give up the 3-2 lead. "It's bittersweet to lose the lead late, but overall a point in the standings is a big deal. (Chicago) was a good team, they are much better then their record shows. So, we're pleased with the point.""

- Ben Olsen, via  "Down 2-0, we were travel-weary early in the game, just a little bit out of sync in the first half, and I thought our subs came in and really changed the game. Their energy was good, and the entire team just raised it a level in the second half. It's not always perfect, you don't always play at your best, and you find ways to keep inching along. We did that tonight...[Luis Silva's] been as big as anybody this year for us. It's nice to see him continue his scoring form."

- Chicago Fire coach Frank Yallopvia  "If you look at the first goal for them, I don't see the call, for one. The second goal is not a foul; the free kick is fantastic, take nothing away from the kick. But those things change games. Yes, we can't hang on to a lead but I thought we played well tonight. I thought we deserved to win, but we didn't. You probably have a different view. For me, we deserved to win that, because two calls go against us in the match that cost us the game. Momentum is everything; we're two goals up, they get a phantom penalty kick, I don't know what the call is. So they go 2-1, they've got life. He gives them another foul that was not a foul, I'll show you it. Razvan [Cocis] wins the ball, pokes it away, gives a foul to a good player in a good spot; great free kick area for a great finisher like [Luis] Silva is, and he likes that, and they score. Third goal, I'll live with that one, but we're on the ropes at that point. So it's tough."

- Chicago Fire forward Quincy Amarikwavia  On what he was asking the referee after the call leading to the D.C. penalty kick: "I had a discussion with him. I wanted to know if he was calling the penalty on Sean [Johnson] for coming out and being strong in the box or if he calling it on something he saw that Baky [Soumare] did. It's a tough gig being a ref, you can never be right and everyone's mad at you. I would have liked things to go our way, but what can you do? He said from his first impression that, that he thought Baky came in with his elbow a bit high. It was pretty crowded in the box there, the only way to know for sure is to go back and look at the tape."

- Luis Silva, via  On stepping up in Espindola's absence: "Yeah I mean it's the first time [Espindola's] not here and [Johnson's] not here and I thought I had to step in there. I try to do my best, my teammates around me helped me a lot and we were able to get a point even though we're always looking to get a win."

- Bobby Boswellvia  On the road trip making the end of the season more difficult: "This was one of the toughest road trips anybody can go through. I think a bunch of us have been doing this a long time and it was definitely not easy. We got some results in tough places so I can't be too upset with that. We can't rest too much, we have a big game on Wednesday. It'll be nice to get some home games and I think our fans are awesome, and we will take care of business at home."

My Words:

Against a team desperate for a win on Saturday night, D.C. United proved they are a mentally tough side by clawing back from a two-goal deficit.  Throughout this season, mental toughness has been a hallmark of Ben Olsen's team as they have grinded out results consistently all year long, both at home and on the road, during stretches of key players being out for injury or suspension, or when facing deeper teams.  In Chicago, it unfortunately looked like it took both of the Fire's first-half goals to focus D.C. United on the difficult task at hand.  But, from the time they were down 2-0, aided by Olsen's double substitution at half to bring on Chris Pontius and Chris Korb in favor of Michael Seaton and Samuel Inkoom (while also moving Sean Franklin to right wing), D.C. United played like a team leading the Eastern Conference.  And this mental toughness and focus would see them rattle off three unanswered goals to stand on the brink of a road win--until they again suffered a late-game letdown to give back points they appeared headed toward banking.

We've documented throughout the season the out-of-character trend which has developed of D.C. United giving up goals in the final 15 minutes of regulation (plus stoppage time).  Combined, they've now dropped a net of -11 points on late game goals/actions.  As shown in the table below, when including Fabian Espindola's missed PK against Columbus in the 95', the Black-and-Red have suffered a late-game drop in points during every month of the season except July, when they went a sterling 4-0-0.  What's perhaps most surprising is D.C. United's lack of goals in these same situations to change the result of a game.  It's only happened once this season, way back in May, when Eddie Johnson scored in the 84' to force a draw against the Montreal Impact.  Maybe it's tired legs from veteran players at the end of the game, maybe it's the fact they've played with the lead a lot this year rather than playing from behind, maybe it's a lack of a late-game focus, maybe it's a lack of impact subs off the bench on the offensive side of the field, or maybe it's just a coincidence.  Whatever it is, D.C. United is in for a lot of close games down the stretch and into the playoffs where the opposition will get better and better.  The team will have to figure out how to stop allowing results to be flipped against them in the closing minutes while finding ways to flip a few results their way as well.

Date Home Team Visiting Team Goal Scorer Minute Final Result DCU Points Dropped/Gained
8-Mar-14 D.C. United Columbus Crew Federico Higuain (CLB) 90' 0-3 0
29-Mar-14 D.C. United Chicago Fire Quincy Amarikwa (Chi) 82' 2-2 -2
5-Apr-14 D.C. United New England Revolution Chris Rolfe (DCU) 90'+3' 2-0 0
19-Apr-14 Columbus Crew D.C. United Hector Jimenez (CLB) 90' 1-1 -2
3-May-14 Portland Timbers D.C. United Own Goal against POR (Mamadou Danso) 78' 2-3 0
3-May-14 Portland Timbers D.C. United Maximiliano Urruti (POR) 90'+4' 2-3 -1
17-May-14 D.C. United Montreal Impact Eddie Johnson (DCU) 84' 1-1 1
24-May-14 New England Revolution D.C. United Diego Fagundez (NER) 77' 1-2 -1
7-Jun-14 D.C. United Columbus Crew Fabian Espindola (DCU, missed PK) 90'+5' 0-0 -2
3-Aug-14 Houston Dynamo D.C. United Will Bruin 90'+1' 0-1 -1
17-Aug-14 D.C. United Colorado Rapids Chris Rolfe (DCU) 81' 4-2 0
17-Aug-14 D.C. United Colorado Rapids Fabian Espindola (DCU) 86' 4-2 0
17-Aug-14 D.C. United Colorado Rapids Deshorn Brown (COL) 90'+1' 4-2 0
31-Aug-14 D.C. United New York Red Bulls Eddie Johnson (DCU) 90'+1' 2-0 0
10-Sep-14 New York Red Bulls D.C. United Lloyd Sam (NYRB) 90' 0-1 -1
20-Sep-14 Chicago Fire D.C. United Matt Watson (Chi) 78' 3-3 -2
Total -11

The Last Word:

Due to D.C. United's consistently strong performances throughout the season, they've been able to hang onto first place in the East while coming through this very difficult stretch which started at the beginning of August.  Including their Aug. 3rd match on the road against the Houston Dynamo, United is 3-4-2 (11 points, 9 games, 1.22 pts/gm, 13 goals for, 14 goals against) in MLS games, but seven of those games were on the road.  Added to these games, the team has also gone 2-0-0 (3 goals for, 1 goal against) in CONCACAF Champions League matches over the same stretch, and stands on the verge of advancing to next spring's quarterfinals with an additional point in their remaining two CCL matches against Tauro.

Fortunately, the schedule gets significantly better as D.C. United prepares for the final five league matches of the season.  Of their remaining games, three are at RFK Stadium, with road games at Houston (ugh) and Montreal (a place they've already won this season) interspersed.  And, if D.C. United can secure the point they need against Tauro this Wednesday at RFK, the team will have maximum flexibility in how it handles it's away game in Panama which is awkwardly placed right between the final two weekends of the MLS season.

So, how close are the Supporters' Shield and Eastern Conference races with a handful of games to go?  Below, are the magic numbers for the Seattle Sounders for each of their primary competitors for the Supporters' Shield.  For example, any combination of the Sounders earning points and/or D.C. United dropping points which equals 10 will result in United not being able to catch the Sounders for the Shield.

Team Total Points Games Played Magic Number Wins Losses Draws Potential Points
Seattle Sounders 54 28 17 8 3 72
LA Galaxy 54 29 16 15 5 9 69
Real Salt Lake 49 29 11 13 6 10 64
D.C. United 48 29 10 14 9 6 63

And for the Eastern Conference race, here are D.C. United's magic numbers against each of the other  teams.  As you will see, Montreal already can't reach United even if they win out and United loses all remaining games.

Team Total Points Games Played Magic Number Wins Losses Draws Potential Points
D.C. United 48 29 14 9 6 63
Sporting Kansas City 45 29 13 13 10 6 60
New England Revolution 42 29 10 13 13 3 57
New York Red Bulls 41 29 9 10 8 11 56
Columbus Crew 40 29 8 10 9 10 55
Philadelphia Union 38 29 6 9 9 11 53
Toronto FC 37 28 8 10 11 7 55
Houston Dynamo 33 28 4 9 13 6 51
Chicago Fire 31 28 2 5 7 16 49
Montreal Impact 24 29 N/A 6 17 6 39

What the table above shows is how big the next two matches, both at home, are for D.C. United.  If D.C. beats the Philadelphia Union next Saturday (Sep. 27th), they will eliminate them from having any chance of winning the East.  Additionally, if United beats Sporting Kansas City in the following match (Friday, Oct. 3rd), they will lower their magic number against Sporting by six points.  Win both games, and D.C. United's magic number versus Sporting will drop by nine total points, meaning at worst it will be four points with three games remaining (and might be even lower if Sporting drops points against New England at home on Friday, Sep. 26th (a draw in that game really would be good for United)).  After those two home games, the Black-and-Red close out their season by facing what are right now the three worst teams in the East (who could all be eliminated, or all-but-eliminated, from the playoff race by the time United faces them):  Houston, Chicago, and Montreal.

Winning the East won't be a cakewalk, but it's there for the taking with two well-timed home games over the next few weeks.  It will take mental toughness, however, to handle the desperate teams United will be facing, deal with the on-going injury issues to Chris Rolfe and EJ, while continuing to incorporate CP13, Korb, Inkoom, and others into the squad.  All the while, D.C. United must figure out how to flip the narrative on late-game results which has oddly plagued this team in 2014.

Magic numbers or The Magic School Bus?  Which do you prefer?