Progress had been more or less a constant for D.C. United in this abbreviated preseason, but that could not be said tonight. United fell 3-1 to a ten-man FC Dallas side, with all four goals scored after midfielder Michel was given a straight red card in the 23rd minute. Ryan Hollingshead and Jairo Arrieta traded goals before Fabian Castillo and Tesho Akindele - from the penalty spot - gave the Hoops the win.
Ben Olsen unsurprisingly chose a strong team for his final dress rehearsal before the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal match against LD Alajuelense next week. Andrew Dykstra - in need of minutes after missing much of last year injured - started in goal, while United's ten field players contained only one surprise. Markus Halsti suffered some sort of injury in the past couple of days, while Steve Birnbaum was fit enough to play from the start. Per game announcer Steve Davis, Halsti's injury is considered minor by United, so he may remain in contention for a starting spot against La Liga.
After a back-and-forth opening period in which both sides came close to creating some danger but couldn't make a connection, Dallas wasted a great chance in the 8th minute. Fabian Castillo found Mauro Diaz in the middle, who one-timed a sharp ball out wide to an overlapping Atiba Harris. Harris put in a low cross for Ryan Hollingshead, who was a bit late to make contact and ended up directing the ball wide from a very promising position.
United replied with a good sequence three minutes later. Taylor Kemp got into some space on the left to cross, but his service was a few yards ahead of Fabian Espindola. A strong gust of wind ended up causing the ball to dip sharply, however, fooling Dan Kennedy into letting it bounce over his head. Matt Hedges was alert to the danger and hacked the goal-bound ball off the line. United ended up collecting the clearance and firing it back in from 20 yards, but Kennedy was far more assured in blocking the ball away for a corner.
Dallas answered by putting Castillo in behind the defense in the 15th minute, but under pressure from Sean Franklin he skewed his shot well wide. Soon thereafter, some of the bite that last week's game had popped up again: Bobby Boswell got a long talking-to from referee Armando Villarreal after nipping at the ankles of notorious pest Blas Perez.
If the Boswell-Perez incident hinted that there was an edge to the game, a 23rd minute incident made it abundantly clear. Michel launched himself into a nasty, inexplicable two-footed tackle on Franklin just inside the Dallas half. After a brief shoving match between the teams, Villarreal correctly showed Michel a straight red card. Olsen lobbied forcefully to allow Dallas to send in a sub so the game could remain 11v11 - which is a more useful training exercise at this point in the preseason - but Villarreal refused.
Franklin would come off at halftime, with Chris Korb replacing him. Minutes into the second half, a shot of DC's bench showed him with his right ankle wrapped and iced. Needless to say, fans will be hoping the move was simply precautionary.
Despite the numerical advantage, United fell behind in the 26th minute. Moises Hernandez found himself in space on the left and hooked in a pinpoint cross to Perez, whose unchallenged knockdown header at the back post set Ryan Hollingshead up for the simplest of tap-ins.
If Olsen was upset about the decision to play 10v11, he surely was more upset with the fact that United seemed to switch off all over the field after Michel was ejected. Even after the wake-up call of a goal, United remained reactive on both sides of the ball for nearly 10 minutes. Finally, around the 34th minute, United regained their focus and started connecting their passes. A quick backheel from Espindola capped a 10-pass sequence which only ended after Diaz fouled Pontius. United had a crafty set play ready for the situation, with Espindola dinking a ball in for a sprinting Birnbaum. Unfortunately for United, Birnbaum's diving attempt to poke the ball past Kennedy left him with too much to do and the effort rolled wide.
United's improvement saw them stretch the field from touchline to touchline and hold possession well into the FCD defensive third. A 45th minute cross from Kemp was not taken cleanly by Kennedy, but Walker Zimmerman managed to hoof the loose ball clear under pressure from both Pontius and Espindola.
From the second half kickoff, the Black-and-Red resumed pressing the home side. A cross from DeLeon nearly deflected on frame, and the ensuing corner from Espindola found Birnbaum. Dallas had him marked just well enough to bump him on the way up, however, preventing clean contact and causing the Cal product to scoop his header over the bar.
Dallas is known for being a physical side, and that continued despite the earlier red card. Rolfe was barged down by Harris, while Zimmerman picked up a 51st minute booking for going in late on an aerial challenge with Pontius. In something one sees in hockey more than soccer, Arnaud eventually replied for United with a rash tackle on Diaz that got a yellow in the 56th minute.
Jairo Arrieta subbed on in the 57th minute, and nearly made an impact within seconds of entering the game. Korb served up a beautiful cross for the Costa Rican, who ghosted away from Harris and Zimmerman before heading the ball against the post. As the hour mark passed, Arrieta's desire to make a difference spilled over, as he was booked for a needless foul in the Dallas half.
The Arrieta Show continued, and this time United's new forward was more accurate at the back post. United did well to compress space in central midfield to end a Dallas attack before breaking out on the counter. A 3v3 developed, with DeLeon on the ball in the center channel before moving it to right for Espindola. United's #10 lived up to his number with a perfectly weighted cross to the back post that left Kennedy helpless on his line while allowing the unmarked Arrieta to sidefoot a first-time equalizer into the roof of the net.
United looked to have seized control, and it was DeLeon's turn to be in the thick of the action. First, he was able to chase down a Kitchen through ball for what should have been a breakaway, only for DeLeon to stumble. He still managed a shot, but as it was off-balance it was no real surprise that it went straight into Kennedy.
That probably should have been a goal, but United created what definitely should have been a goal in the 65th minute. Kemp placed a cross to the back post, where DeLeon did very well to nod the ball down for Kitchen. It should have been United's impression of the first Dallas goal, but Kitchen's lunging attempt to finish meant he never squared up to the frame. The slow shot ended up bounding wide, and to make matters worse DeLeon ended up cutting his eyebrow open in the process of heading the ball. Miguel Aguilar came in at right midfield during the next stoppage in play.
United's misses came back to haunt them in the 79th minute. A splendid piece of play involving Hollingshead, substitute Tesho Akindele, and Castillo sent the electric Colombian into the box, where he took advantage of a glaring miscommunication between Boswell and Dykstra. Boswell wanted to shepherd the ball back to Dykstra, who was always playing the opportunity as if either a clearance or shot was coming. In the end, Castillo dashed around Boswell to poke the ball under Dykstra and in for what turned out to be the game-winner.
A naive United performance was capped off by conceding an 87th minute penalty kick. Boswell missed an interception at midfield, allowing Castillo to burst forward in typical fashion. Castillo played Akindele in behind the defense, and Birnbaum's attempt to poke the ball away ended up catching the trailing leg of the man who beat him for Rookie of the Year. Akindele would take the penalty himself, and though Dykstra guessed correctly there was little he could do with the Colorado School of Mines product's blast from the spot.
DCU didn't simply give up, producing two late chances. Kyle Bekker fouled Espindola about 25 yards from goal and right of center, handing United a dangerous 89th minute free kick. Espindola's service ended up skimming just above heads from both teams before finding Arrieta, whose header appeared to surprise the former Chivas USA keeper. Sadly for United, it was not enough of an ambush to get past Kennedy, who palmed the ball upward and managed to corral the rebound.
Arrieta would get yet another look in stoppage time, and it's not one he'll remember fondly. Conor Doyle - in at left midfield - rolled a very clever ball in behind the defense that found Arrieta perfectly timing his run through the channel. Arrieta's first touch took him around Kennedy, who fell down in pursuit. A wide open goal beckoned, but Arrieta's casual attempt at a finish missed the wide-open net by at least a yard. Doyle's head-in-hands reaction from behind the play said it all.
In the end, United learned a pair of harsh lessons. First of all, against a team with the weapons Dallas has, defensive mistakes simply can't happen if you want to maintain a shutout. Secondly, teams that waste big chances tend to lose. Hopefully this is merely a learning experience United needed to suffer through rather than an indicator of what will come this coming Thursday in Costa Rica.