There's nothing quite like the frustration of losing on penalty kicks, which is just what D.C. United did on Wednesday night. And even within that subset of grating ways to be eliminated, this was a bad one: A first half bereft of action, multiple goal-line clearances by the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, and PK misses from a player who had sparked the game to life (Luciano Acosta) and another who is finally getting his moment as a starter (Jared Jeffrey). Oh, and let's not forget that United had a one-goal lead after three rounds; to lose at that point within the normal five-round structure, missing twice while your opponent scores twice is the only way it can happen.
I would say this piece is inspired by the ten penalties at the Soccerplex, but "inspired" doesn't quite cover the masochism that comes with framing an entire piece around something that will probably bubble up in my mind until United wins another Open Cup. Regardless of whether this was "inspired" or "haunted" by elimination on penalties, it's the structure we're going with.
First penalty: Julian Buescher converts. Let's talk about Buescher, who fans have wanted to see more of in a true midfield role. That sort of happened here, as Buescher spent virtually all of 86 minutes playing as a #10 in a 4231 before dropping into a deeper role when Acosta came on.
The good news is that Buescher showed his field vision by repeatedly spreading the field out. With the crowding in central midfield, he roamed from side to side and also dropped deep in an effort to get United's attack going. It looked, at least to my eyes, that he was far more comfortable in this role than the job he's had in DC's league games (i.e. stepping in for Acosta as a withdrawn forward/attacking midfielder hybrid).
Those are good signs, but there are still some things for him to improve. For one, if he's going to play this high up the field - and thus far, the indicators are that Ben Olsen sees him mainly as a #10 - he'll have to sharpen up on a couple of fronts. For one, Buescher's field-spreading game doesn't help as much once United is in the attacking third. At that point, they need more short combination play and the footwork to open up lanes to put someone through into the box. In both of those departments, Buescher would have to add something to his game that isn't really there right now.
Of course, maybe that's not all his fault. It seems to me that Buescher's approach and skill set would be better deployed as a #8. If he's going to deep to help move United upfield more efficiently, doing so from higher up the field can be problematic (after all, it means one less player high up the field). Plus, if Buescher can only play as an attacking midfielder, it reduces the chances that he gets on the field with Acosta. United should be looking to use both players at the same time more regularly, particularly in a season where being shut out at home has become so common.
Second penalty: PC converts. In prepping for this game, and watching it in person, I was keeping an eye out for players who might attract some interest from United. For the most part, I wasn't left with a long list, but two defenders came to mind. First among them is PC, the oddly-named Brazilian left back. PC captains Fort Lauderdale despite being just 22 years old, and his high-energy style of play would fit well with a United side that relies on heavy involvement from their fullbacks. He's not as gifted a crosser as Taylor Kemp, but as depth he'd be an interesting addition. Of course, it's sometimes easy to forget that Chris Korb will, at some point, be back in uniform, and Luke Mishu was not bad in this game (we'll talk about him soon), so it's not necessarily a move that needs to be made.
The other player that comes to mind is Gale Agbossoumonde. United currently has four center backs, but that number may shrink soon. Steve Birnbaum is attracting major European interest, while Bobby Boswell is 33 years old. Even if Chris Durkin's long-term future sees him end up there - a big if after his display in central midfield - that leaves United in need of another center back. Agbossoumonde became something of a sad story due to his troubles finding a good place to play thanks to Traffic Sports mismanaging his career, and his time at TFC did not go well, but we forget that he's still just 24 years old. There are teams in MLS right now that would need to consider playing him as a starter, and it would be great for United to maintain the status quo of having a starting-quality player available off the bench if/when Birnbaum moves on. Agbossoumonde should not be the only option, but he should be discussed.
Third penalty: Rob Vincent converts. I know Vincent has not exactly won fans over thus far, but I'd say that - compared to his fellow second-choice winger Miguel Aguilar - he fairly decisively had the better performance on Wednesday. Even before Aguilar's night ended with what appears to be a hamstring strain, Vincent was getting a lot of little things right while Aguilar - who was repeatedly fed the ball throughout the first half - could not capitalize.
The circumstances of being the left winger in a game where your team is swinging the ball left-to-right over and over again make it hard for a player in that role to make much of an impact. And on the ball, Vincent didn't make a bunch of noise. However, he still managed 2 key passes, and his defensive efforts were quietly pretty valuable. One of his tackles in extra time broke up a dangerous attack, and it was his block on PC that thwarted the best opportunity the Strikers created all game long.
The one concern I have with Vincent is that he still hasn't been able to find room to put the excellent long-range shot he possesses to good use. He attempted one shot from about 40 yards that, despite the distance, was a real threat only to be blocked in the 75th minute. That's been a theme with Vincent, and it's all down to his ability to find clearer shooting windows. In the USL, he found those gaps all the time. Up in MLS, it hasn't been so easy. Hopefully he can figure it out soon, because United could use a healthy wide midfielder right now.
Fourth penalty: Maicon Santos blasts his shot well over the bar: Friends, the first half of this game was diabolical. Here's the best summation of it I can find:
Fifth penalty: Taylor Kemp converts. One of the least controversial MLS truisms is that Ben Olsen does not play his kids. You read it in our comments, it pops up on Twitter all the time, and you hear it in the stands at games. I heard it more than once at the Soccerplex during this game.
It's not really an accurate portrayal of reality, though. Look at United's normal starting lineup. Bill Hamid became a starter under Olsen as a 19 year old. Birnbaum, Kemp, and DeLeon all became starters in their rookie season (though Kemp did bounce in and out of the lineup for a while there). Acosta has become a starter at 21 years old, and in his first MLS season. Perry Kitchen and Andy Najar aren't here any more, but both became starters under Olsen as teenagers.
This is not a full-throated defense of United's youth policy. The truism is not completely false. Collin Martin has often been injured, but when he is healthy he's been either left out or used as a wide midfielder. Jalen Robinson is rarely seen in competitive games. Buescher is not being trusted in the role he'd probably be best in when he subs into league matches, and the 442 has survived even though it seems a different look would be better for Acosta. United's best lineup this season has featured two 34 year olds, a 33 year old, and a 31 year old. The Black-and-Red could certainly be younger.
However, this is pretty clear evidence that "Olsen hates young players" is far enough from true that it merits more consideration than simply echoing a line that feels true. It's not just easily disproven; it's dangerous to the club. I've read more than one article insisting that promising young players in the area have the perception that there's no path to playing time at United. In this case, perception becomes reality, and fans are not helping by repeating this myth. It's easier to say than to discuss the mixed bag that is Olsen's history with young players, but "easier" is not always better.
Sixth penalty: Gabriel converts. Let's stick with the topic of young players and talk about Chris Durkin. I don't want to contribute to yet another US youth soccer hype train, but United's newest player was very impressive in central midfield. It wasn't just his accurate passing (39 of 46 attempted, or 84.7%, including not missing a single attempt in the first half), either. Durkin was seeking out involvement in the game, making himself available for the ball throughout the game, and the type of passes he was attempting. Durkin was not playing it safe, and he was not cowed into avoiding major involvement.
There are also little signs that his mentality and maturity are excellent. Early in the match, Durkin was elbowed in the face. Referee Matthew Kreitzer, just a couple of steps away, somehow ended up calling Durkin for a foul as both he and Luis Felipe went down. Luis Felipe got a talking-to about his elbow, which was worth at least a yellow card. Instead of letting that dangerous play rattle him, or going after a referee who had clearly failed to do his job, Durkin kept his protest very brief and went back to playing as if the incident never happened.
We need to see more, obviously, and we need to see him replicate this against MLS opponents, but based on this evidence alone Durkin would do just fine if called upon in league play in 2016. We know that isn't possible due to the terms of his signing, but in the 2017 preseason it would be very disappointing to see Durkin not being given a chance to prove he belongs in the regular 18.
Seventh penalty: Luciano Acosta's shot is saved by Diego Restrepo: I'll keep it short here. United is bad at penalty kicks. Generally speaking, it's assumed that professionals convert above 75% of their efforts from the spot. DCU went 3 for 5 Wednesday night, and that's on the back of a season in which they've gone 1 for 2 in MLS play and 0 for 1 in the CCL. Last year, Chris Rolfe - who had that CCL miss - was 4 for 4, but United's other two attempts were missed.
I don't have much to add to this, other than that it's upsetting and strange. It could be an aberration, but I'm starting to suspect that it is not.
Eighth penalty: Ramon Nuñez converts. Before we finish up, let's talk about some players who don't get much time. Luke Mishu was not flawless by any means, but he seems to be a decent choice for his role within United's roster. He can handle spot starts without the Black-and-Red having to worry that he'll torpedo their hopes for those games. I'd like to see faster recognition from him in transition, though.
Robinson had some iffy moments, to be sure, and he struggled more than once when having to physically battle Maicon Santos. However, he also produced two key blocks for United and seemed more comfortable as a center back than he was in preseason.
As for Andrea Mancini, well...I guess it's fair to say he met expectations. Early on, he just seemed a yard off or a half-second slow, but as the game wore on he got progressively worse. He eventually missed an unguarded net, and later did supply a cross that almost found Alhaji Kamara in a good spot. Still, the overall impression I got was that this Matt Doyle tweet was not out of line.
Ninth penalty: Jared Jeffrey hits the crossbar. Sadly, the image of the night is unquestionably Jeffrey, after the Strikers won the tiebreaker, slowly walking all the way to the furthest, emptiest corner of the Soccerplex. All the time, we hear "MLS teams don't take the Open Cup seriously," or that United specifically doesn't take it seriously. If this isn't taking something seriously, then what is?
It's especially sad for Jeffrey, who after years of being overlooked has finally pushed his way into steady playing time in the last couple of months. It also alarmed me a little bit to see only one player (I think it was Franklin, but I was not close enough to be sure) attempt to console him once he broke away from the main group. Kofi Opare was trying to talk to him at midfield, but that was about it. It could just be circumstantial - you can't console a guy you never saw walk away, for example - but still.
Tenth penalty: Matheus Carvalho converts. I mentioned penalties earlier, but let's not get too caught up on that front. It's not why United is out of the Open Cup. This, more than anything else, is why they're out:
See that gap on the edge of Fort Lauderdale's penalty area? The one with no attempted passes, or even passes going through it? That's a testament to United's inability to break down the Strikers down the middle. Agbossoumonde, Julius James, Luis Felipe, and Jean Alexandre committed themselves to being hard to break down as a group, and they succeeded. United often gave up on playing through there, with Buescher drifting wide or deep (as we talked about) and no wingers ever drifting into that attacking area.
Even when Acosta came on, he ended up trying to attack fullbacks rather than break into the middle. Fort Lauderdale deserves great credit for being so disciplined in this area of the field, but surely United knew that was coming. The players on the field have to take it upon themselves to get something going in zone 14, and United as a team needs to make more of a point of attacking that space in training. This is not the first time this has happened. Settling for crosses, especially on a team that may be starting Acosta and Fabian Espindola this weekend, is not going to cut it.