Despite putting together their best half of the preseason, D.C. United fell 1-0 to Swedish champions Malmö FF. On a windy day at the IMG Academy's mini-stadium, United were the better side for much of the first half before conceding a goal moments before the halftime whistle to Jo Inge Berget.
Ben Olsen unsurprisingly focused on giving his best available eleven more time together. Fabian Espindola and Chris Pontius were again the forward pairing, though this time Pontius appeared to have the role of leading the line. The midfield consisted of Nick DeLeon, Markus Halsti, Davy Arnaud, and Chris Rolfe (who is still sporting a hefty elbow brace). Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Kofi Opare, and Taylor Kemp made up the back four, while trialist GK Travis Worra ended up playing the full 90 minutes.
It took just 66 seconds for United to create their first threat: A quick move from Rolfe gave him some space to free up Kemp down the left. Kemp - in a footrace with a defender - managed to get enough of a step to fire in a cross towards the penalty spot. DeLeon was lurking, but Malmö managed to scramble the ball away in the nick of time.
The quick start carried over for the next few minutes, as the Black-and-Red pressed high and repeatedly harried the Swedish champions into rushed passes and hopeful punts upfield. Slowly, however, Malmö started to settle in and showed an ability to escape United's pressing. However, United would create the next threat, again from the left. This time, it appeared to be Kemp chipping Rolfe into space to put a hard cross in towards the top of the six. Arnaud made a charging run, but ultimately his marker stayed close and the ball merely glanced away.
For brief periods in the opening half-hour, United's 442 looked more flexible than usual, with Espindola dropping off to the right wing and DeLeon pinching inside to create something of a 4231. That's the look United had as they created their third attack, and there are no prizes to guess where the service came from. Another left-wing cross was drifted into the box, and this one found DeLeon open in a great spot. Unfortunately, DeLeon snapped his head too early and ended up guiding a great chance wide of goal.
Malmö were mostly limited to set pieces at this point, but they were still more dangerous than DCU fans would like to see. A 21st minute corner was met with a volley about 14 yards out, but Opare blocked the shot with his chest. Seven minutes later, Malmö sent a corner outside the area for a shot from distance, but it was again charged down by the United defense. That saw the Swedes get yet another corner, and they again beat the capital club to the ball. Fortunately, the Malmö attacker was marked well enough that he couldn't turn his header on frame.
United regained some control of proceedings around the half hour mark and won themselves a dangerous free kick in the 35th minute. Espindola's service to the back post froze the goalkeeper, but the diving attempt by Boswell went wide. As with DeLeon's miss, it has to be said that Malmö were very fortunate to stay level.
United sensed they had a chance to make their advantage count, and created three chances in a three minute span just before halftime. Some great combination play between Espindola and Franklin in the 41st minute saw the California native get free on the right, but he overhit his cross. A minute later, Espindola nearly found Rolfe with a chip inside the box, and then the Black-and-Red had a shot go wide in the seconds that followed.
United would rue those wasted opportunities, as Malmö took a 45th minute lead against the run of play. A cross from the left got caught in the wind, forcing Opare to backpedal to try and head the danger away. He made contact, but the ball fell to the foot of a Malmö midfielder. With Opare recovering his balance and an incisive run from Berget guiding the pass, there was little Worra could do against what amounted to the kind of opportunity one sees in close-range finishing drills.
After the interval saw two changes for United - Miguel Aguilar and Jairo Arrieta coming in for DeLeon and Pontius - Worra made his first save in the 50th minute. A slip at the back post from Kemp saw Malmö gifted an unchallenged shot from an angle, but Worra managed to block the low bid behind for a corner.
After Espindola had a shot blocked at one end, Malmö won a 55th minute free kick - for a very soft call against Halsti - about 23 yards from goal. The Malmö shot curled over the wall, but went over the crossbar by a yard or so. Malmö threatened again in the 58th minute, when a cross from their right wing saw a well-placed attacker whiff entirely on the ball. The chance wasn't gone yet, as United had to block a follow-up bid as well. The attack continued, with substitute Andrew Driver intervening with a crucial poke after Malmö looped the ball back in from the left.
David Estrada came in for Espindola, but the stoppage didn't slow Malmö down. A cutback from the right flank forced another blocked shot inside the United box, and the ball eventually found a Malmö midfielder for a blast that missed the upper corner by a foot.
Malmö made a slew of substitutions in the 63rd minute, while United made two swaps. Boswell made way for Rauwshan McKenzie in central defense, while
Florida Man mysterious trialist #37 came on for Franklin at right back. Two minutes later, the central midfield duo of Halsti and Arnaud were replaced by Jared Jeffrey and Dan Metzger.
McKenzie made a quick impact with a good open-field tackle in the 67th minute. United quickly countered, and with Malmö appealing for offside Arrieta raced in behind the defense. A Malmö defender's angle was just good enough to force the Costa Rican to reach out with the outside of his right foot, which resulted in an unconvincing shot that Malmö's keeper was able to save.
Minutes later, an ill-advised pass from Kemp handed Malmö a 3v3 break from midfield, but McKenzie - who performed admirably despite having a lot to do in his 27 minutes - was on hand to intercept the Swedish club's ensuing pass.
United had a lot of the ball in the period that followed, but nearly spoiled it with another defensive turnover. Opare was the culprit this time, but he recovered quickly to prevent a more dangerous look. This turned into a sequence of Malmö corners that United would half-clear only to see the ball pumped back in. Eventually Himmelsblått thought they had scored via a clean one-time volley from close range, but the assistant referee flagged for offside.
United's bench was urging the Black-and-Red to press for an equalizer, but the group on the field were having trouble creating looks. A decent spell of possession saw Estrada with a chance to cross in the 85th minute, but he placed his effort too close to the keeper. Moments later, Conor Doyle was given a yellow card for a scissor tackle that could have drawn a red. Speaking of United's bench, after an 88th minute foul by Arrieta along the sideline, there was an exchange of pleasantries between Chad Ashton and at least two different opposition coaches. And of course by "pleasantries," I mean "swearing."
Deep into stoppage time, United got one last look. A foul at midfield saw United play the ball out to Collin Martin along the left side. Martin's cross was glanced onward before falling to either Jalen Robinson or
Florida Man #37 at the back post. In either case the volley attempt was blocked away, and the referee ended proceedings seconds later.
Olsen's side is likely packing up their last few things and heading to the airport for a return flight to the District later today. Their next preseason match is on February 13th in the ATX Pro Challenge, where they'll be facing the USL-PRO's Austin Aztex.