D.C. United once again disappointed their home fans, falling 1-0 to the Chicago Fire and barely ever carving out chances. David Accam’s 52nd minute goal made the difference, but in truth Chicago - despite having played mid-week - could have won by more if not for saves from Bill Hamid and misses from MLS top scorer Nemanja Nikolic.
Ben Olsen, forced to make do without the suspended Luciano Acosta and coping with a struggling team, switched from the 4141 formation that has been in place for recent months. In its place, a 442 featuring Patrick Mullins and Sebastien Le Toux as a forward partnership. Homegrown rookie Ian Harkes was dropped to the bench as well, making way for Marcelo Sarvas, while Chris Korb came in at right back, allowing Steve Birnbaum to move back into the middle.
United nearly fell victim to some very bad luck in the 12th minute. A Fire corner kick from David Accam was driven into the goalmouth, where Birnbaum - falling due to a shove from Joao Meira - ended up accidentally heading the ball off the crossbar. Referee Hilario Grajeda spotted the foul, though, and United was given a free kick.
Accam stayed out on the right side after the corner, and that nearly gave him a great scoring chance two minutes later. A defense-splitting pass from Michael de Leeuw sent Accam in alone, but Bill Hamid was off his line fast enough to snuff the danger out just before the Ghanaian could shoot.
Chicago was starting to take control, and thought they put themselves ahead in the 21st minute. Nemanja Nikolic, normally a goalscorer, played provider for Luis Solignac, with the Argentine rolling a low shot past Hamid. Fortunately for United, the near-side AR correctly spotted that Nikolic had been offside before he made his pass, allowing United to escape.
The visitors kept coming. Matt Polster overlapped from his right back position in the 29th minute and got to the endline without any D.C. players able to intervene. Polster’s low cross to the goalmouth found the unmarked Nikolic, and it looked certain that Chicago would take the lead. However, a crucial block from the lunging Korb saved the day, and United managed to clear.
The game had some chippy moments, particularly involving Patrick Mullins. The Fire were enraged by his bump on Schweinsteiger, who stayed down trying to earn some sympathy from Grajeda before turning out to be completely fine. Mullins later had his moments with Joao Meira and Dax McCarty, as physicality seemed to be the only advantage United had over Chicago.
Schweinsteiger nearly put Nikolic in behind the defense in the 36th minute, but a narrow offside call defused Chicago’s threat. They were more dangerous in the 42nd minute, as a quick ball upfield following a United corner put Accam into plenty of space. Accam showed his cleverness, holding onto the ball long enough to get reinforcements before clipping the ball to the back post for Nikolic. Korb extended as high as he could but couldn’t block the cross, and Nikolic had a free header. Normally deadly from such spots, the Hungarian international put his header just close enough to Hamid to allow for a save on the goalline.
Not a minute later, and Chicago’s tactic of playing balls in behind came up again. A ball from the back line put Accam into space on the left flank. One on one with Korb inside the box, Accam tried some fakes looking for an angle to cross or cut the ball back. When they didn’t arrive, he curled a shot wide of the far post, much to the relief of the home fans.
In the early moments of the second half, United generated their best look to date. Unfortunately, their 49th minute three-on-three break forward ended up being easy for the Fire to solve, as Le Toux’s pass to Lamar Neagle was too narrow. Polster got a foot in, and Chicago cleared without a shot being fired.
Balls in behind had troubled United all night, and Chicago finally took a deserved lead through Accam. Meira’s diagonal ball from the back caught United stepping up to catch Nikolic offside, and replays showed Accam timed his run to perfection. With no Black-and-Red defenders having a chance to catch him, Accam took his time, drawing Hamid off his line before opening his hips to curl the ball around him and into the far-side netting.
Finally stung into action, United had the next two good looks. The first one was mostly down to Meira’s stunningly bad choice to play a square ball across the top of his own penalty area. The pass went straight to Lloyd Sam, who perhaps stunned by his good fortune never really put a move on Brandon Vincent, the only man between him and Matt Lampson’s goal. Sam took a touch before firing a low shot that Vincent blocked easily.
Finally, after an hour without generating any real danger, United manufactured a threat of their own. It was still a prosaic chance: Taylor Kemp’s long throw-in was glanced down by someone in a mob of players at the near post, falling invitingly right in front of Chicago’s goal. Mullins, sliding and swinging his shooting leg all in one motion, beat everyone to the loose ball, but his rush to make contact saw him slice the ball over the goal.
Chicago adjusted, though, and in the ten minutes that followed had more of the possession and were able to dictate where the game was played. Olsen responded by bringing Ian Harkes and Jose Ortiz in for Marcelo and Mullins, but the subs looked more like fresh legs than carrying with them any particular change in tactics.
The next chance was still Chicago’s. McCarty, having come to the left flank to help in possession, spotted de Leeuw’s smart run before anyone else. McCarty’s ball in was inch-perfect, and de Leeuw knifed between Birnbaum and Bobby Boswell only to contrive to miss a sitter from inside the six yard box.
A scrappy exchange saw Jared Jeffrey push the ball towards Neagle on the edge of the box in the 79th minute. Neagle was crowded out, but the ball squirted into a seam right on the edge of the box for Le Toux, who should have done more than whip a shot over the crossbar from 18 yards.
Nikolic forced Hamid into an awkward save on the ground in the 82nd minute as United, throwing numbers forward, left their keeper exposed. At the other end, a Sam free kick was nodded to the back post by Birnbaum, but the ball eluded Boswell and left Ortiz with too narrow of an angle to do anything but force a corner kick.
Chris Odoi-Atsem came on for Korb as United’s final roll of the dice, but it was Hamid again robbing Nikolic as the Fire continued to simply play balls in behind the defense. Veljko Paunovic moved his team first into a low-block 433 by bringing Drew Conner on for Accam, and later changed into a 532 with center back Jonathan Campbell replacing de Leeuw. United, meanwhile, began the familiar tactic of leaving Birnbaum up high as an auxiliary forward.
Schweinsteiger showed some magic to carve out a look for Nikolic, who somehow smashed the ball over from 10 yards despite it being a textbook opportunity to deliver a dagger. United worked manfully to try and scrape out some kind of scoring chance late, but in truth Lampson was not forced to work much on the night.
Having seen three straight at home go by the wayside, United’s schedule is about to get far more daunting. Their longest trip of the season is up next, with a game against the Vancouver Whitecaps this coming Saturday night followed by a trip to Florida to face Orlando City the following Wednesday.