The play from D.C. United as they turned their season around in September and October had earned them plenty of plaudits. United, averaging less than a goal per game after 20 games, ended up the fifth highest scoring team in Major League Soccer, moving all the way up to fourth in the Eastern Conference by season’s end.
But maybe they bought in a little too much into their own hype, as United were soundly defeated by the Montreal Impact 4-2, ending United’s season in the Knockout Round of the playoffs.
“I don’t know if we’re reading our own press a little bit,” a disappointed Ben Olsen said in his post game press conference. “And thinking it was going to be easy and that we were going to walk to the championship. But that’s not how it goes.”
Before a final day loss to Orlando City, in which Olsen fielded a reserve heavy side, United had run off four victories in a row to make their move up the table in the Eastern Conference. Wins against Orlando and Columbus Crew SC were musts, but they were bookend by wins at Toronto FC and working over New York City FC at home.
There was a sense then that this team was capable of making a run in the playoffs, moving past the Eastern Conference Semifinals, where they had stumbled each of the past two years to the New York Red Bulls. Instead, a game in which they never really threatened to win is all the team has to show for their late season surge.
Instead, they fell behind early as Laurent Ciman lost Rob Vincent in the box, and swept home Marco Donadel’s corner in the 4th minute for an early lead. There were some dangerous moments for United going forward, but they were pegged back late in the half, as Matteo Mancosu scored the first of his two goals on the evening.
“We just didn’t show up as a group,” center back Steve Birnbaum said after the game. “We thought we had a great group going into the game, but it didn’t pan out for us like we wanted it to.”
The goal within the first four minutes was the killer though. Montreal were more than willing to come and play on the counter attack, but having the early advantage played right into their hands. Bunkering down, they limited United offensively, and then took advantage of a mistake late in the half as United couldn’t properly clear danger away, allowing a second attack to result in Mancosu’s goal.
“The confidence that we built let us down a little bit. We came out expecting to win the game at home, because of how we were playing,” winger Patrick Nyarko told B&RU in the locker room. “Mentally, we were lackadaisical coming out of the gates.”
The early goals and falling behind and losing big at home were reminiscent of the early season version of United. But the time the team took a break for Copa America in June, they had already lost four times at home in just eight games. Since then, which included changing the formation to accomodate Luciano Acosta, shipping off Fabian Espindola, and adding Patrick Mullins, United went undefeated at home, winning 6 of 9 games.
Which then made Thursday night’s stumble even tougher to stomach.
“It’s frustrating for us to have this build up, and then have this kind of let down in the playoffs,” goal scorer Lamar Neagle said in the press conference.
The game had been put away with Mancosu’s second goal 13 minutes into the second half, but United continued to pour forward looking for a lifeline. That left them open to the threat of Ignacio Piatti on the counter attack, and the Argentine wizard finally scored his goal in the 83rd minute.
Neagle and Taylor Kemp got United on the board late, little solace as the team scored multiple goals for the tenth consecutive game. By that point, the stands had thinned out, and United were well on their way to packing up RFK Stadium for the winter.
Still, the second half turnaround provided some hope for Olsen and company. The hope is that they will be able to permanently transfer Luciano Acosta in for Boca Juniors, and that all the pieces that came together in the summer will have more time to gel on the field. But on a night of so much promise, that won’t keep many warm.
“I like my group. The guys are extremely disappointed, but I really like this group,” said Olsen. “I’m excited to work with them next year, and build off of what I think is a very good nucleus.”