D.C. United was held 1-1 tonight against the Montreal Impact in what the scoreline indicates was a typical DC match. It was anything but. Patrick Mullins and Hernan Bernadello scored, Didier Drogba got red carded, and this is what we learned.
1. When you don’t finish your chances, the Impact can punish you.
Maybe it’s just karma or something. Last year, United famously went to Montreal and won 1-0 on a single shot on goal. Tonight, with the clock winding down and the Impact down a man, Hernan Bernadello laced a half-cleared corner kick past Bill Hamid for the equalizing goal on the visitors’ first shot on target of the night. (And even if it was deflected on its way in, it still counts just the same.)
Making that tying goal all the worse is what transpired at the other end of the field just before. Saborio got in behind and touched the ball to the trailing Luciano Acosta, who scooped a pass back over the defense to Sabo, setting the Costa Rican up for a left-footed blast off the crossbar -- one of 10 off-target shots of United's 16 attempts on the night. Seconds later, the equalizer. It wasn’t the first missed chance for United, but it’s the one we’ll remember.
Even with Drogba off, all it took was one moment from les Blue-Blanc-Noir to steal points from the Black-and-Red — who really can’t afford to be giving any points away at this point in the season. One more finish, and tonight feels a whole lot better, but instead we’re left with one fewer home game to gain in the playoff chase.
2. D.C. United can actually play with the ball!
The Black-and-Red have a well earned reputation in MLS that they are not a team that cares about holding the ball. They want to counter, they want to be direct, and they have generally been more comfortable without the ball than with it.
Tonight, they turned that notion on its head against one of the league’s most skillful teams, hoarding about 60% of possession and completing more than 80% of their passes. Los Capitalinos held 68% of the ball in the first half. Sixty-eight percent.
They had chances, too. Nick DeLeon had a couple of close misses. There was Sabo’s crossbar shot. Luciano Acosta saw a good opportunity miss the near post and a penalty shout go uncalled. The Black-and-Red could have — should have — had another goal or two, and that’s the difference between being below or above the red line.
The scoreline was 1-1, and anybody who didn’t watch will be shaking their head saying "boring, boring DCU." Tonight, at least, those people are wrong. Now, to keep playing this way and starting to finish those chances.
3. This team has some pieces.
United may be a team on a shoestring budget. They may be the single biggest landing spot for MLS veterans seeking a fresh start. They may be a team that for the last several years hasn’t played the most inspiring brand of soccer.
But damn if they can’t play sometimes, even with players out of position or playing an uncomfortable style and with reserves on the field due to injury. And it worked. After the game, Ben Olsen called tonight’s performance the best of the year, and he’s got a case.
Nick DeLeon played on the wing, where he has spent much of his career but has looked out-of-place this year, and he was fantastic. Given license to leave Sean Franklin on his own, Nicky got to the endline to send crosses in, and he got into the box for shooting opportunities. I think when Lloyd Sam and/or Lamar Neagle return to the field, DeLeon will move back inside, but tonight should be a confidence-builder for #14, no matter where he plays on the field. Nicky easily could have gotten on the score sheet for the first time this year.
Patrick Mullins made his RFK debut for United, and marked it with a well-taken goal and arguably a man-of-the-match showing. He was active in the build-up and won seemingly every 50-50 ball he competed for. Once the wingers understand that he’s capable of sending in those flick-on headers, I think you’ll see more out-of-nowhere attacks for United. The Maryland product already looks like a fantastic pickup for Ben Olsen & Co.
That's not even mentioning Lucho Acosta, who was lit all night, or Marcelo, who was on the ball an insane amount, or Bobby Boswell, who managed to look much more comfortable in possession than I’ve seen him in years, or Sean Franklin, who has a preternatural ability to be exactly where Acosta wants him to be in the build-up, or Taylor Kemp, who rediscovered that left foot of his.
Just like I said in Thing #2, we’ve got to see more of this going forward. We have three games to work on this style at home, and then I want to see something closer to it on the road, too.
That’s what I’m taking away from this game for tonight. Share your gut reactions in the comments below.