There have been plenty of highs and lows for D.C. United this year, peaks and valleys that have been the source of pride, and a plethora of frustration. Wins on the road against Atlanta United, the Vancouver Whitecaps, have been soured by an extended scoreless and winless streak at home, injuries to most of the key players, and results that have left the Black-and-Red at the bottom of the table, with just 14 games remaining in their season.
But those ebbs and flows haven’t quite been on display in the same game as prominently as they were on Wednesday night, when United raced out to a three goal lead in 50 minutes, on the road against the Seattle Sounders. That meant five goals in two games for a team that had just 12 in the 18 games before that. Even with 40 minutes remaining, surely United would find a way to get something out of that game, right?
D.C. found a way to lose that game, giving up 4 goals in a 27 minute stretch that doomed United to their 12th loss on the season, one which will likely have playoff implications, considering the position they were in five minutes into the second half.
“We weren’t disciplined enough in the second half. We didn’t make enough plays, or saves that could have kept us in the game,” head coach Ben Olsen told B&RU on Friday. [Seattle] are a good team, I’ve seen them do that to teams before. But there’s no reason why we shouldn’t come out with something.”
Maybe the most damning moment of United’s capitulation was right after Lloyd Sam scored to give the Black-and-Red the three goal advantage. That should have been the goal that confirmed United’s win. The stadium is abnormally quiet, given how boisterous CenturyLink Field is. Instead of being the nail in the coffin though, United couldn’t even keep the Sounders off the board for another minute. Known United antagonizer Will Bruin scored a glancing header momentarily after Sam’s goal.
Just like that, the energy was back in the crowd. They had already seen their team come back from a three goal deficit this year, and they were witnessing the early moments of greater result from being down three goals.
“It deflated us. But a lot of teams would love a 3-1 lead away at Seattle in the second half,” midfielder Ian Harkes, who scored the second goal against Seattle, told B&RU in an interview Friday. “We should have done a better job of defending that lead. We needed to reorganize, maybe bunker down, and trying to finish out the game. But they used their momentum well, and took advantage of their chances.”
If the final result seemed strange, it was because it was a first in MLS history. Facing a 3-0 disadvantage, teams had come back to earn a draw before. Seattle had already done that this year, stunning the New England Revolution after falling behind by three goals in the second half. Never before though, had a team trailing by three goals come back to win a game in regulation.
Now, United are part of MLS history, and not the kind that they would have liked to be part of. And what makes it even more painful is that United hadn’t fluked themselves into that three goal lead. It was well earned, especially on the back of the first half performance, which had enough chances for three or four goals itself.
“The reality is, for a half, we played some disciplined, good stuff. The trick is to understand that there’s no room for error anymore,” said Olsen. “We can’t have halves where we’re not all on the same page. I take some blame for it. Anytime you’re the coach of the team that gets four scored on them, you have to look at yourself, and moves that I could have made to change that.”
After the game on Wednesday, Olsen talked about building upon the positives from the 4-3 loss. It seems tough to find those after losing a game that was so easily winnable with 40 minutes left, but, there have been areas of improvement over the past two games for United, to go along with the areas of concern.
For one, the game against Seattle was the second in a row in which both Harkes and Deshorn Brown scored. They are at different stages of their careers, but both to an extent are still trying to find their footing within this team. Brown, because he just joined the club a month ago. Harkes, because he’s a young player, who is in his first season as a professional.
They’ve now seemingly helped United fix their scoring woes. Before Brown’s goal against FC Dallas, United had just one goal from a striker this year, and that came from Jose Ortiz in April, a player who is no longer with the club. With Brown finding his comfort zone within United’s set up, and Patrick Mullins on the verge of returning from injury, there’s a chance United might get back to scoring goals at a normal rate for a soccer team.
Though it seems that pushing numbers forward is having a devastating effect on United’s ability to defend their own goal, having given up 10 goals in their last three games.
“We had trouble scoring for a while, and defensively, we were pretty good. We were holding teams to one or two goals. Now, recently, it’s flip flopped,” said Olsen. “Our attacking pieces have been on the field consistently, and that part now has not been an issue. Now, making the plays defensively that matter, and being more disciplined on the defensive end is something we have to rectify.”
For Harkes, he believes that his recent output, in which he’s scored three goals and assisted on another in the past five weeks, is due in part to the trust he’s earning amongst his teammates on the field.
“There’s more comfort, a little more trust from other guys in me. Chances are falling my way as well,” Harkes told B&RU. “I was getting chances earlier in the year, but they just weren’t falling. I knew if I just kept taking them, they’d hopefully go, and now I just want to keep that going.”
Harkes’ goals have all come from a late, trailing runs into and near the top of the box. That’s the area that Harkes is suppose to fill when he joins the attack, helping keep chances alive, distributing the ball. And it’s something that he’s more than comfortable doing.
“He’s talked about when to join the attack and when to defend,” Harkes said of the instructions that Olsen gives. “I need to continue to pick my times, but filling the box, and getting up the field as an 8 is important to support those guys. The late, trailing run is something I like to do.”
As it stands, with 14 games remaining in the 2017 season, United’s season is in peril. It looks like they’ll need 30 more points to have a realistic chance of making the playoffs, and even that might not be enough. 10 wins from their final 14 games seems like a stretch, especially considering that at least two of those wins would have to come on the road. United have just four wins on the road in the past two years.
But Olsen, as stubborn as he was on the field, is just as stubborn as a manager in his seventh year as the full time boss of the Black-and-Red. Despite the long odds, he thinks he still has the players capable of turning their season around.
“The frustrating part right now is there is enough there to put it together with this group. There’s enough talent, we’ve got enough guys that have been around the block,” said Olsen. “We have enough attacking pieces, we got defenders that have been through it, and understand how to win games in the this league. There’s no reason why we can’t turn this thing around.”
And turning it around has to start on Saturday. United host the Houston Dynamo, who despite an excellent record at home, have not won a game on the road in 2017. The Dynamo will definitely be without the services of Erick Torres, who is with Mexico in the Gold Cup. Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto, and Oscar Boniek Garcia were eliminated with Honduras last night, but the trio are unlikely to be available tomorrow.
Still, there a different side under Wilmer Cabrera than the team that United played 13 months ago, a 0-0 draw in Texas. A side that is much more capable of stealing a result from RFK Stadium, despite a woeful road record this year.
“They’re dangerous. This is a different Houston team than last year. In transition they’ve been very dangerous,” said Olsen. “So we’re going to have to take care of the ball. We’re going to have to make sure that as we attack, we’re doing a good job of finding their key guys in transition.”
“It’s a huge game. We have to grab as many points as we can, and make a push for it. Hopefully it’s not too late,” added Harkes. “We don’t believe it’s too late. Every game counts, so we’re going to take advantage of being at home, having the home atmosphere, and take it to these teams.”