Referee Ted Unkel might not have won over many fans from D.C. United on Saturday night, but it was the Black-and-Red’s own ineptitude in front of goal that has kept United winless to start the 2017 season. The latest set back was a 2-0 defeat at home to Columbus Crew SC, as center back Steve Birnbaum conceded two penalties, one on each side of the half.
That was only part of the equation though, as United once again failed to find the back of the net. Through three games, 270 minutes, and countless missed opportunities United have scored exactly zero goals to show for. This toothlessness comes after ending 2016 as one of the highest scoring teams in the league, with pretty much the same group of players on the field.
“It’s frustrating,” left back Taylor Kemp said of the team’s lack of goals in the post-game press conference. “You can’t win if you don’t score. I do think this was a better performance from us as a group. I thought our possession was better, our movement was better. Clearly we have to get better in the final third.”
Luciano Acosta returned to the lineup for the first time this season, after picking up an ankle injury in the final preseason game. That seemed to have a significant difference in the first half, as Acosta was part of several United attacks. But then Patrick Mullins left with a hamstring injury, and United’s attack stuttered for the rest of the half with Jose Ortiz at the point.
Then came the first of two penalties on the night. It seemed to be the correct decision, with head coach Ben Olsen agreeing with Unkel’s decision after the game. Birnbaum came in front of Ola Kamara in the box, but wiped out the striker with a scoring chance still on.
“First one is probably a good call, the second one is a terrible call,” said Olsen after the game. “I’m pretty sure on both of those. I think referees should be pretty sure on calling PKs.”
Gonzalo Higuain took the honors for the first penalty and beat Bill Hamid to the left post. But while United faced a deficit, they didn’t seem to be out of the game in the second half. Ortiz should have opened the team’s account early on in the second half, but after a well worked give-and-go with Lloyd Sam, Ortiz’s attempt to clip the ball in was well saved by Crew keeper Zack Steffen.
What followed 65 minutes into the game was the controversial call, at least from United’s side. Birnbaum and Kamara battled for a ball in the box, just as Hamid came out to claim the ball from the two players. But Birnbaum was adjudged to have pushed Kamara over, and Unkel wasted no time in pointing to the spot.
“I thought it was pretty good defense,” Birnbaum said after the game. “Guess you can’t touch him in the box. Obviously that cost us the game, both of them.”
“I thought we were shoulder to shoulder in the box, and I thought I had a good angle on him,” added Birnbaum. “I didn’t think it was a penalty.”
Those penalties shouldn’t gloss over the bigger story for United after three games, though. One point from three isn’t great, but more perplexing is the lack of goals for the Black-and-Red. After setting a club record last year for consecutive games with multiple goals, and a preseason in which they scored 12 goals in 5 games against adult professional teams, United hasn’t found the back of the net once in competitive matches. The Black-and-Red are naturally getting frustrated.
“We’ve had chances. We’ve had a penalty missed. There’s no better chance than that,” Sam told B&RU after the game. “Today we had a couple of chances to score. But we probably need to be able to create more.”
Now the team will have two weeks to stew over their struggles before their next game. Without a game during the upcoming international break, United host the Philadelphia Union in two week’s time, before welcoming New York City FC to town to round out their schedule of four home games out of five to start the season.
With time to work out some of the kinks in the system, the team is hoping that they can turn in a couple of good individual performances into team-wide performances, in hopes of turning their early season slide around.
“Some good performances, but not enough good performances still,” said Olsen of the team on Saturday. “And you need good performances from everyone, in this league, to win games. That includes making plays in and around the box. We’re not doing that enough.”