There’s an awful lot to think about regarding D.C. United right now, even coming off of a much-needed (if ill-gotten) 1-0 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps. United did what they’ve done for the large majority of their successful road games in the last three and a third seasons: Absorb pressure, frustrate opponents into lots of long or contested shots, and rely on Bill Hamid to be brilliant.
Is that enough to help until the cavalry arrives, so to speak? And what about the controversial nature of how United got on the board? Let’s tackle these subjects before we move on to United’s trip to Orlando:
The transfer window is not United’s savior
Ben Olsen said “we will get better” in discussing the summer transfer window after the Black-and-Red fell at home to Chicago, but I sense that this choice of phrasing carries more than one meaning. Sure, United is going to want to bolster their roster, and probably by adding to the top of it rather than simply getting deeper. That’s what’s needed, after all. Depth is vital, but it’s not really the issue here. United needs “difference makers,” “game changers,” or whatever you’d like to call players in the class of Hamid, Luciano Acosta, and Steve Birnbaum.
However, the more important meaning in my book is the “we” in place today. Olsen is no dummy; he doesn’t need to be told the difficulty of trying to go from near the bottom of the table to a playoff spot by relying on brand new players acclimating to what is an odd league starting in late July or early August. The old reliable path of MLS success - stay in touching distance, then go on a run over your last 14 or so games - only works if you stay in touching distance.
That brings me to my main point: this year’s transfer window opens July 10th. United can do whatever they want right now - sign Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, sign Leonardo Bonucci and N’Golo Kante - and it won’t help until July. Like it or not, United isn’t going to the playoffs unless the roster that’s in place right now starts picking up points.
Here’s the schedule that stands between United and the first day they could field whatever new signings they add (unless said new players are free agents, who are allowed to start playing the moment their visa and international transfer certificate are completed):
5/31 - at Orlando City
6/3 - vs. LA Galaxy
6/13 - vs. Christos FC or Chicago FC United (US Open Cup)
6/17 - at Toronto FC
6/21 - vs. Atlanta United
6/24 - at Philadelphia Union
6/28 - Potential US Open Cup 5th Round match
7/1 - at Montreal Impact
7/4 - at FC Dallas
Barring an upset loss to non-professional players that would linger for a decade in any fan’s head, that’s nine games. At least five of them are away, and only one game in that whole spell - the USOC game against Christos/Chicago - comes with the traditional full week of training and prep. It’s a brutal stretch for any team, much less one that is troubled right now (away wins or no).
United fans have been grumbling for a while about ownership needing to spend more. It’s a noise that quieted after Acosta’s transfer was made permanent, but it has gotten pretty loud recently (three straight losses at home will do that). And they should, no doubt. However, the fact is that for the incoming acquisitions to be what gets United into the playoffs for the fourth straight year, they’d have to more or less run the table in the 15 fixtures they’d have left the day those players become eligible.
Getting better in the window is a must. A high-end defensive midfielder, a winger that can match or better Patrick Nyarko’s dribbling, speed, and goal threat, and a center back who is no worse than the second best such player on the roster are all very important players to sign. But between now and then, United’s current squad has to figure out how to pick up enough points for those signings to really matter in 2017.
The Assassination of Kendall Waston By The Coward Jose Ortiz
On to Saturday’s game, which was mostly scrappy (though it did contain a passing accuracy that, for United, is a sign of progress). All anyone wants to talk about is Jose Ortiz winning a penalty by hurling himself at the ground under very minor contact.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: Yes, Ortiz took a dive. No, it’s not good. None of us wants to support the team that cheats its way to wins. However, it does bother me that the post-dive competitive outrage among fans and observers seemed to completely ignore a major factor here:
Kendall Waston was trying to grab and obstruct Ortiz.
Consider what happens if Ortiz keeps his feet: Waston takes a fistful of his shirt, and his progress is blocked by Waston’s forearm. Waston is physically stronger than him, and no one has a good angle to make the call. Ortiz’s body would have been obscuring Sorin Stoica’s angle to see the grab, and the angle of the assistant referee (not to mention the traffic in front of goal) would have made it pretty unlikely that the call comes in from the sideline.
Would you be as outraged if Waston got away with what he was trying to do? If Ortiz doesn’t throw himself to the ground, Waston would have been fouling him within a split second. That’s why his arm was where it was, and that’s why he was putting his hand on Ortiz’s chest. That wasn’t an accident. Anyone who has played defense will tell you that the small, hidden fouls you can get away with are a big part of any center back’s arsenal.
This is not a defense of the dive, which has drawn the suspension it deserved. MLS rules are clear that a dive that “has a material impact on the result” of a game is punishable by suspension, and Ortiz is now a repeat offender after being fined for simulation against the Fire.
I’m simply calling for a balanced reaction. Ortiz did dive, but let’s not forget that Waston was trying to foul him in the box, and the only thing that stopped him from doing so was said dive. We can be mad at Ortiz while also noting Waston is making an effort to get away with something. In other words, both players are cheating, and we can make note of that without saying diving is good or that Ortiz should carry on playing that way.
There’s one other thought I can’t shake after this, and it’s not really about this dive as much as what we get mad about as soccer fans. A dive is sure to provoke an angry response. Anyone who was on Twitter wihle United took on the Whitecaps probably saw plenty of neutral folks get up in arms about Ortiz’s choice to hit the deck. So be it. It offends the moral sensibilities, and it’s upsetting.
However, in a lot of cases it seems like MLS fans are more offended by (or at least more unified against) a dive than they are against violent conduct. Waston’s stray arm to Acosta’s mouth, or even the heavy collision between Hamid and Brek Shea, drew far less hostility during and after the game. Both were more accidental than anything else, but someone could have been hurt.
Expanding outward, I’d say nothing got more disapproval across MLS this weekend than Ortiz’s dive, despite the rash of suspensions for things that could actually put someone on the sideline (or even in a hospital). I’m not baffled by our tendency to get angry about diving; I’m baffled by our tendency to treat it as a worse sin than, say, a potential leg-breaking tackle.
Pay attention the next time we see a red card for a dangerous tackle that goes hotly disputed. Listen to former players now serving as commentators brushing the danger off (particularly if it’s a local broadcast defending their home team). Think about the difference in outcomes between a dive (at worst, a penalty or red card in a game) and actual violent or dangerous play (physical damage to another human being). To me, it’s clear which thing to get more angry about.