There was plenty of excitement in the air on East Capitol Street on Saturday evening. The weather was cold, the wind was cutting, but five days after D.C. United hosted a groundbreaking ceremony to mark the beginning of construction of their new stadium, there was optimism ahead of the Black-and-Red’s season opener against Sporting Kansas City.
Then, an hour before kickoff, the lineup was announced, and Luciano Acosta was absent due to injury. Next, just a quarter of an hour into the game, Marcelo Sarvas had a penalty saved. And with just over 20 minutes left in the second half, two goal line clearances and a save by Tim Melia forced United to settle to a 0-0 draw against SKC to open the 2017 MLS season.
Nothing disastrous, but not exactly the opening United had in mind.
“On the day, offensively, maybe we weren’t as sharp was we wanted,” head coach Ben Olsen said after the game in his press conference. “On days like that, you have to try to get something out of it.
In the end, United got a point. United were clearly in need of the inspiration of the Acosta, who was a game time decision. After picking up an injury last week against the Philadelphia Union in the team’s last preseason friendly, Acosta was omitted as a precaution against Sporting.
Julian Buescher took Acosta’s spot on the field, but did not have the same kind of impact as the Argentinian. United mustered just nine shots in total on Saturday night. Six of them were on target, but none beat Melia (or in some cases, KC defenders on the line).
“It’s no secret we’re different with him, than without,” Olsen said about Acosta. “I thought it was a gutsy performance from us. We defended more than we would have liked, or thought we would.”
Despite the struggles offensively, United could have run out winners on the night. Buescher won a penalty kick early on for the Black-and-Red, and Marcelo stepped up to take the spot kick. The Brazilian failed to deceive Melia though, and Melia reacted quick enough to save Patrick Mullins’ follow up effort as well.
Olsen said after the game that there is no dedicated penalty taker, but that Marcelo took the responsibility of stepping up.
“Sarvas stepped up to take it. And he’s a guy that has a lot of confidence,” said Olsen. “He’s not the first player to miss a PK in RFK. We’ve had some other ones.”
Other than the penalty and the follow-up rebound, United’s only major threat came in the 67th minute. From a Lloyd Sam corner, Ike Opara cleared a header that would have gone down as a Roger Espinoza own goal off the line. A follow up shot from Nick DeLeon was also headed off the line by Dom Dwyer, and a third attempt from Jared Jeffrey was stuffed by Melia.
In between though, United found it tough to get going. Even with Acosta missing, United expected to show more offensively, but came up against a well organized Peter Vermes team.
“Offensively, we would have liked to be a little better, and sharper, especially at home,” winger Patrick Nyarko said in the post game press conference. “We came against a good side, very organized. And they gave us a game.”
It wasn’t quite all doom and gloom though, even with the dropped points at home. Despite conceding 60% possession, United did well to limit Sporting’s scoring chances. Benny Feilhaber came closest with a free kick in the first half, and striker Dom Dwyer had a close range header fly just over the goal in the 10th minute.
Other than that, though KC had the edge in total shots, most of the them were speculative long range efforts that did little to test goalkeeper Bill Hamid. Which shows an improvement over last year, when their free-scoring ways also saw the Black-and-Red conceding more goals than they were accustomed to.
“Overall, the team defended well. And worked for each other,” Steve Birnbaum, who captained the team for the first time, said after the game. “[Dwyer] is a tough guy to mark, so I thought we did pretty well with him.”
United now has just over a week to regroup before Sunday’s trip up north to take on New York City FC. Olsen said after the game that Acosta remains day-to-day with his injury, and said that they would monitor Acosta’s progress throughout the week. But Olsen said that the onus is on the team, and not just Acosta, to fill that attacking void once the playmaker returns to the side.
“It’s not a single person,” Olsen said of Acosta’s role of relieving pressure on the team’s defense. “This isn’t, okay, you put one guy out there, and all the sudden it changes everything. It’s the responsibility of [Nyarko], Lloyd Sam, Patrick Mullins, the number 8, the number 6. It’s everyone’s responsibility. It’s not one player that’s going to relieve pressure.”