Saturday night’s task for D.C. United was always going to be an uphill battle against Toronto FC. Late in 2016, when United was one of the highest-scoring teams in the league, the Black-and-Red came to Toronto and beat the Reds 2-1 via two Lamar Neagle goals. Even with United red hot at the time, that victory came as a surprise due to the big names on TFC’s roster.
2017 has been a different story though. United have struggled time after time to score goals, coming into the game having been shut out 9 times in 14 games. Meanwhile, TFC entered the match atop the Supporters Shield standings, with 29 points from their first 15 games. Plus, they had the likes of Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez, all capable of turning a game on it’s head, ready to take advantage of any lapses from United.
United gave themselves a fighting chance. They didn’t control the game’s first hour, but they at least forced the Reds into unfavorable situations and kept the scores level. Then, like a flash, everything changed as Michael Bradley, Giovinco, and Altidore combined for the opening goal, in what eventually became a 2-0 win for Toronto.
That zero that United put up on the board? That’s the now the 10th time in 15 games that they’ve been held without a goal in 2017. They have just 10 goals on the season, which is 4 goals fewer than any other team in MLS. Hardly the recipe to win games.
“There’s goals out there. There’s opportunities for us. We have to take them. That’s it. That’s the story,” head coach Ben Olsen told B&RU after the game. “We have to find ways to win games. We’re not doing that right now.”
United didn’t have many chances to find a goal, but when they did, they couldn’t make the most of them. Neagle couldn’t get anything on a cross from Patrick Nyarko in the first half that just needed a touch. Another first half sequence presented several shooting opportunities near the box, but Luciano Acosta and Lloyd Sam couldn’t get a shot away. Alex Bono, TFC’s keeper, was only forced into one difficult save, and that came in stoppage time on Taylor Kemp.
Obviously, the make up of both team’s plays into this. Toronto have spent millions of dollars on player salaries and transfer fees, while United has (Acosta aside) carefully sought out MLS castaways, looking to stay on the cheap until a new field is open for them to profit at.
But that means that to compete, United must be turned on for the entire 90 minutes, something they couldn’t do against the Reds. An hour into the game, United made a poor decision offensively, failing to keep hold of possession in the attacking half. Moments later, Altidore scored the game winner.
“We don’t make the right decision going to goal. Quick turnover, the ball finds itself with a guy who we don’t want the ball with,” said Olsen, speaking about Giovinco. “He plays a perfect ball to the other guy who we don’t want the ball to get to. He takes a great touch, and he scores a goal.”
That left United scrambling to find a goal that was never coming. And as the game was winding down, a goal from substitute Jordan Hamilton sealed the deal. Not exactly what United was hoping for after the first 45 minutes, which saw them frustrate Toronto to the point that they were arguably the happier side going into the break.
Instead, now United have to quickly refocus, with a stretch of 5 games in 14 days, starting with Wednesday’s tilt at home against Atlanta United. Starting to getting back to playing as a team might be one antidote for a 2017 that has seen the team pick up just four wins in their first 15 games.
“We’re a team built to do everything together. We don’t have that star power. What we do, and what we’ve done best in the past, is defend together, and attack together,” winger Patrick Nyarko told B&RU after the game. “For some reason, this year, we haven’t been doing that at all. That’s the basics we need to get back to. We attack in numbers, we defend in numbers. This year we’ve gotten away from that.”
As for how to alter United’s poor form, inability to score goals, or finding that teamwork that’s aided United in the past three seasons? Olsen is just as flummoxed as anyone else.
“If I knew what to fix, I would have done it by now,” Olsen said, after the game. “We’re going to keep trying. Sometimes it just takes one to get on that roll, one guy to get hot, to make that play that matters.”
And according to center back Steve Birnbaum, it’s not for a lack of skill on the team.
“We got the players. We need to execute.”