D.C. United came into Saturday's game against the Philadelphia Union, having acquitted themselves well on the road this year. There is only one win to show for in eight games away from RFK Stadium, and at times, they've been outplayed. But there was just two losses in those eight games, and only once had United conceded multiple goals on the road this year.
That all changed in the Black-and-Red's second trip to Chester, PA, this year, as United were outclassed for 90 minutes in a 3-0 loss to the Union. United came out of the gate slowly in the first half, conceding two goals from penalty kicks. Any hopes of a comeback were dashed just after the second half began, as the Union tallied their third to end the game competitively.
"You think?" manager Ben Olsen said when B&RU asked him about the poor first half from the Black-and-Red.
"We were just late to show up for this match, in every aspect. They had more everything in that first half."
From the outset, it was clear that United didn't have wait it would take to get a result from the game. The Union were hardly an offensive juggernaut in the first half (they finished the half with 5 shots), but the penalties made all the difference. Kofi Opare tripped up Chris Pontius in the 19th minute, with Roland Alberg converting from the spot.
Then, after a second penalty shout was waved away, Marcelo Sarvas impeded Ilsinho in the box, and the tricky Brazilian powered his spot kick past Bill Hamid.
Without having to exert much effort, the Union were two goals to the good, and by the way the game was going, it was going to take a miracle for United to get something out of the game.
"We came out flat, to say the least. We didn't deal with their attacking threats as efficiently as we need to," Opare told B&RU after the game. "And it cost us. It cost us a couple of goals, so next time we have to be better all around."
Opare in particular struggled with the threat of CJ Sapong, Pontius, and Ilsinho throughout the game. Having picked up a yellow card on the penalty in the first half, Opare received his marching orders in the 65th minute, flipping Pontius on a tackle just outside the box. It was a minor miracle that United didn't concede more from there.
Olsen made three changes to the side that picked up a point on the road last week against Real Salt Lake. Birnbaum played for the first time since returning from international duty, while Jared Jeffrey started in place of Luciano Acosta, and Alhaji Kamara got his first MLS spot, with Alvaro Saborio dropping to the bench.
It was clear that the changes weren't the reason for the poor performance, and Olsen went out of his way to let reporters know just that after the game in his post game press conference. "It wasn't personnel, it wasn't formations, it was good old fashion pass and move, a little bit of will, little bit of courage, little bit of anger. None of the stuff you're going to say," said Olsen.
When pressed to find out why those changes were made, Olsen tersely replied, "I did. I just answered your question."
Even with the particularly poor first half, there was still the opportunity for United to overturn the result in the second. They had 45 minutes to do just that, to shake the cobwebs of whatever went wrong in the first half, to maybe just escape Chester with a point.
Instead, United conceded a third goal in the 47th minute, all but ending the game. Sapong won a header in the box on a free kick, laying it back to Ilsinho, who blasted a shot past several defenders and Hamid for the final goal of the game. And just like that, it was curtains for United.
"It's tough [conceding the third goal to start the second half]. We thought if we could get a goal early in the second half then we'd be in the game," Birnbaum told B&RU in the locker room after the game. "They came out with the mentality to score a goal, and they got one off the set piece. We have to tighten that up."
After the game, Olsen was at a loss for why his team came out so flat-footed in the first half. He was upset to say the least, but the team now has a week to right the ship before a trip to play Columbus Crew SC. Another game on the road follows that, with United heading to Canada to face Toronto FC.
"I'll think about it. I don't have that answer right now. It's a long season, and this isn't the end of the world," Olsen said when asked about why his team came out of the gates like they did. "It's a loss away. Philly, who is a very good team, especially when CJ [Sapong] comes back, and they play with this type of energy."
With two more road games before a return home, two more bad losses could leave United in a difficult spot in their pursuit of a third straight playoff appearance. There's still plenty to play for, but with United now on the outside looking in for a playoff spot, performances like the one the team turned in against the Union won't cut it. As Olsen summarized, "You don't show up for an entire game, take a half off, and you don't bring courage, and you don't bring the little things to a game, you're going to eat it. Simple."