For all the ups and downs that D.C. United have endured during the 2017 MLS season, no one aspect might encapsulate the ebbs and flows like their relationship with own goals. Three different own goals scored by opposing teams have helped United pick up three of their wins this season, while three own goals scored themselves have cost them points on three other occasions.
The latest incident came last weekend, as United fell 3-0 to the Chicago Fire. The Black-and-Red had come out strong against their Eastern Conference foes on the road, but where unable to find a goal early on. The Fire responded though, and began to pepper Bill Hamid. The US international stood strong, looking like a brick wall on numerous chances. It ended up requiring a mistake from Ian Harkes, playing in his first game since July 29th, that beat Hamid. From there, United couldn’t respond, and they conceded twice more in the second half to ensure their loss.
For Harkes, it was an unfortunate moment. A long throw in into the box wasn’t causing any danger, but the rookie still had to make a play on the ball. Under no pressure from a Fire player, Harkes tried to head the ball wide, but instead sent it past an unsuspecting Hamid.
Not exactly the way Harkes had hoped to mark his return to the starting lineup.
“It was a tough game to get back into, with the own goal,” Harkes told B&RU during the week. “I have to learn from my mistakes, and move forward to help this team for the rest of the season.”
That own goal seemed to derail United’s night as a whole, but Harkes continued to have a solid outing otherwise. He kept busy moving the ball, as United enjoyed 57% possession while Harkes attempted nearly 80 passes. That’s a number unfamiliar to United in recent years, especially on the road. But the own goal surely provided Harkes with a moment to forget.
“The test is can you get on with the game, and play at a standard we need you to be at? I think for the most part, he did that,” his head coach Ben Olsen opined during this week.
It might have helped that the own goal didn’t come in a high pressure situation. Thanks to a horrid run during the middle of the season, United are virtually eliminated from the playoffs. Even a win against the Fire, who are one of the top teams in the East this year, wouldn’t have changed that outlook much, as United continue to occupy the basement spot in their conference.
Plus, own goals happen to the best of players, to just about everyone at some point.
“I have one [own goal]. Most of the guys in the locker room have one in their pro career. It happens to everyone,” added Olsen. “In fact, it’s happened to a few guys this year for us. He’s a big boy, he’ll move on, and he’ll be fine. He’s a good player, and all these experiences he’s going through this year, are valuable ones, and he is the type of the character that’ll grow from them.”
An ankle injury against Minnesota United back at the end of July took away a few weeks to continue that growth. Despite his absence, United were able to reel off three wins, giving their faint playoff hopes a tiny glimmer of life. But that came to a screeching halt two weeks ago, when United fell 2-1 at home to Orlando.
Harkes was available to play in that game, but spent the entire 90 minutes on the bench, even as Olsen had one last substitute to use. Last week, Olsen said that he didn’t want to break up the combination of Russell Canouse and Marcelo Sarvas, given that United had won three in a row with them playing together. And Olsen also added that he didn’t think that game called for Harkes entering the game as a substitute either.
Which, one would expect might be a cause for angst for a player. But Harkes was able to take that in stride.
“It wasn’t frustrating,” Harkes said, of his delayed return to the team. “Talking with the coaching staff, the team was playing well. Guys that were in there were fulfilling their jobs. Maybe they didn’t think I was fit, or wanted to give my ankle another week.”
Now that he’s back in the team, Harkes has another five games this season to continue his growth individually, and within the team. After not featuring the first game of the season, Harkes quickly became an integral part of United’s midfield. Though that midfield fluctuated in terms of performance, it was clear that Harkes was becoming a better player than the one that was trying to earn a spot in preseason.
“Over the course of the three or four months where he got a lot of games, we saw growth consistently, both of the offensive and defensive sides,” said Olsen. “It’s still, when the ball turns over, can he understand the plays that matter. Can he be in certain spots? Does he understand the urgency of certain scenarios that can help us win games? That’s the stuff we’re working on with him, but he’s a bright kid, he’ll be just fine.”
Over this final five games, Harkes will also have to get used to playing with a new set of teammates. His injury came on July 29th, just before United’s spending spree at the end of the transfer window. The likes of Paul Arriola, Russell Canouse, and Zoltan Stieber were quickly thrown into the team, while Harkes was still recovering. Now that he’s back, he’ll have to learn the quirks and playing styles of the his new teammates. He’s next chance is this weekend, when United host the San Jose Earthquakes in the team’s penultimate game at RFK Stadium.
“It’s been good to get in with them, because they’ve stepped up and done great to get in with the team,” Harkes said of United’s newest signings. “I think they’ve all performed great, and have added something different than the past. I need to get in there, and continue [to build] the chemistry with those guys. If we keep combining and playing well together, I’m sure we will find some results.”