clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Last Word on D.C. United 0-1 Philadelphia Union: On alternatives to burning the tape

Even an "it was just a bad night at the office" sort of game comes with lessons.

Derik Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Entering this game, D.C. United was coming off two games in short order: Another home draw that involved giving up a lead against KC, followed by a strong second half comeback win over Orlando. The third game in this week-and-a-day stretch was to be the easiest: A very short road trip to Philly, where the fans were protesting, the goalkeepers were dropping like flies, and where injuries and suspensions were leaving the home team short of several useful players. United arrived at the top of many MLS power rankings, just as Philly was being talked up (or is that down?) as the league's most dysfunctional club.

Instead of the expected win - most people know United well enough to not bet on a rout - DCU served up a dud. People can call Zach Pfeffer's stoppage-time winning goal a gut punch, but it also seemed like justice was served for both sides. The Union earned their win in spite of having to give significant minutes to guys like Fabinho and Brian Carroll, while United earned their loss regardless of the referee or a cruel carom off a post.

Their Words:

Our Words (Steven Streff): "Coming off a strong second half performance on Wednesday night against Orlando City, D.C. United lost just their second game of the season on Sunday night, falling 1-0 to the Philadelphia Union. Zach Pfeffer, who had entered the game in the 71st minute, fired the Union to their second victory with a 93rd winner. Both teams had goals called back by referee Alan Kelly, setting the stage for Pfeffer's late dramatics."

Washington Post (Steve Goff): "The result shattered United’s unbeaten streak at eight and left the club two points in front of New England ahead of Saturday’s showdown against the Revolution in Foxborough, Mass. ... United (6-2-3) generated just two high-quality chances — Miguel Aguilar’s shot off the right post and a mysterious disallowed goal — and failed to match the energy and prowess in possession by the Union (2-7-3)."

MLSsoccer (Dave Zeitlin): "Bill Hamid sparkled in a losing effort, making five saves to keep the game level until stoppage time when Pfeffer – the team's first Homegrown signing – calmly controlled a Fabinho cross in the box and drove one past the D.C. United ’keeper. ... It was the Union’s first goal in 296 minutes and Pfeffer's second of the year."

The Brotherly Game (John Rossi): "Edu and his teammates didn't even allow a shot on goal, stomping on every chance before it could develop. United's closest chance came in the 50th minute, when rookie Miguel Aguilar shook a few Union defenders before striking the ball towards the far post. Luckily for the Union, the ball hit the post and bounced clear. Perhaps on any other night for this Union team, that ball somehow finds its way into the net. Tonight, it did not."

Via the team website:

Ben Olsen (overall thoughts on the game): "We had a whole bunch of things playing into it. I’m not overly concerned, it was our third game in a week, you know, we just looked a little off. We score a legitimate goal, on the road, and it gets called back. And we’re in good shape to gut out a win or a tie and Luis Silva comes off then we’re playing down a man. ... No team in the league thinks its easy to come to Philadelphia. I felt they brought a lot more to the table tonight, energy-wise, physicality, and their physicality was tough to deal with tonight. I'll take blame for that, maybe I needed to take some more, some different bodies on there. Overall I look at it as a week, a week’s body of work, and the Luis Silva injury was the one thing that’s pissing me off lately because that’s the one thing that’s really disappointing."

Olsen again (on the midfield): "I thought Markus was great, he's a real player. He's going to be very good for us. I thought Farfan did okay and [Aguilar], had trouble finding the game, but when he did he had some good moments. He's still going to be a good player but he's young."

Luis Silva (on his injury): "No it’s a little different, I don’t think [it's] as bad. ... I tried to go into a sprint and I just felt a little tweak. ... Very disappointing."

From the Union website:

Jim Curtin (on his side's performance): "I couldn't be happier for the guys. They’ve put a good shift in. We went with an experienced, older group and they really emptied their tank for me tonight and left a lot on the field. They left it all on the field."

My Words:

In eight days, United had to fight off a typically physical Sporting Kansas City side in a tight game, and then had to pour everything into turning a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win over Orlando City, before going on the road to take on a very desperate Union side. In retrospect, it shouldn't be a big surprise that the performance - particularly without Fabian Espindola, Nick DeLeon, or Davy Arnaud - did not hit any great heights.

However, those factors don't balance out what was a dismal attacking display. United can cite having a goal wrongly taken back all they like; that wasn't a 90 minutes in which the Black-and-Red earned themselves a goal. Even the one good look United did generate involved Aguilar making the wrong decision in not slipping Jairo Arrieta in for what would have been a 1v1 with Brian Sylvestre. Nine times out of ten, Aguilar's decision to go it alone either ends in a tackle, or with his snapshot being blocked by the three Philly defenders that surrounded him. Stats don't always illustrate much in soccer, but in this case "Shots on goal: 0" sums it up.

Going back to the rotation I alluded to before, I'm not sure that was the problem either. Olsen had to move some players in and out of the lineup due to MLS's scheduling. Long-term, it's about injury prevention as well as not having a bunch of guys with nothing left to give come November (see also: KC last year). Short-term, it's about having players who are well-rested and hungry.

United's lineup in this one featured five changes, but only two - Halsti and Aguilar - were coming in with little in the way of minutes in real games. Familiarity was certainly lower than normal, but not by enough to explain away the predictability going forward. Four of the six players who started both games, after all, were defensive (Bill Hamid, Bobby Boswell, Kofi Opare, and Taylor Kemp).

I think the lesson as far as rotation here is the specific players that weren't involved. No one thinks of Sean Franklin as a generator of chances, but's Opta-provided data says he provides more passes that lead to shots than anyone else on the team. Nick DeLeon, meanwhile, is sort of like the glue in United's attack. His goal and assist totals don't point to him being a superstar, but he's regularly involved in United's attacking moves. Those connecting passes don't lead to headlines, but you can be sure that any team will miss that sort of thing when it's suddenly not there.

Personally, I'd rather not see these two both miss a game at the same time if they don't have to. Chris Korb may have an opening available for a starting job, but it's because Taylor Kemp's defending over the past two games has been poor. Korb's ability to help the offense is always going to be a problem, and in fact the Union were clever in making sure to funnel possession his way. In the end Korb attempted more passes than anyone else for the Black-and-Red, while Boswell - who is not coincidentally right next to Korb on the back four - was right behind him. I can't help but think that this tactic wouldn't have been as effective if Franklin were in.

DeLeon's absence on the flanks - not to mention Chris Pontius being needed further forward - is a bit harder to quantify. However, I'd point out that the main complaint about the wings Sunday was that Aguilar wasn't involved often enough. That was the word from the Fox Sports crew at halftime, and that's what Olsen said in the quotes in the previous section. Some fans may grouse a bit about DeLeon not returning to the goalscoring form of 2012, but we rarely find ourselves wondering what impact he made beyond one moment.

Aguilar's skill set is special on a team that needs someone capable of dribbling past a defender rather than always needing that extra man to combine off of, but Aguilar seems more comfortable at this point disrupting games that are starting to settle into a rut rather than taking charge from kickoff. The lesson for him is to find a way to make sure the game doesn't pass him by. I thought United didn't do a good enough job as a group in finding Aguilar, but it takes two to tango. Aguilar didn't make himself an option often enough, and that comes down to decision-making and urgency off the ball. Once he develops that side of his game, we'll start to see more than just flashes.

Other lessons for United? Halsti should pan out. At first glance, he doesn't seem to be constantly running as hard as possible when compared to the furious efforts of Davy Arnaud, but a lot of times it's because he doesn't have to. Halsti's positional sense is excellent, and once United gets used to his tendencies I think we'll see him make a serious push to take over as Perry Kitchen's partner.

There's also the small issue of tired Boswell vs. rested Boswell. This isn't about injuries; dude just doesn't get hurt. Last year in LA, we saw Boswell have probably his worst game since rejoining the team on short rest. I don't think this was quite so obviously a bad game as that one was, but Boswell seemed a bit unprepared for Conor Casey's constant physicality. Boswell surely knew what to expect from Casey, who only plays one way. Rather, I mean he was unprepared in the moment; you can tell yourself something is going to happen and still not steel yourself for it quite fast enough. That seemed to be the issue: Boswell looked just the slightest bit slow to react to situations, and as a result he was losing out on many of those little off-the-ball, "gray area" grabs and shoves that he usually wins. The day may come where, on short rest, Olsen turns to Halsti or even an Opare-Birnbaum duo to ward off mental fatigue for United's most physically durable player.

The Last Word:

Overall, there's the temptation to "burn the tape" after a bad outing in sports. Sometimes in soccer, things just don't work. This was one of those games, where there were plenty of C- performances all on the same night rather than any one player being particularly bad. When you play like that and one of your best players doesn't arrive with an A+ to bail you out, you tend to get a performance that is lesser than the sum of the modest parts we're talking about.

However, I don't endorse the "forget it and move on" logic. United can learn from this game. They need to figure out why the Union had so much space to fire in crosses, because the Revs are all about the wings right now. They need to solve the issue of how a fairly positive start dissolved into nothing once the Union started to long ball their way past the (relatively) high press. And with a long trip to Portland looming after that game in Massachusetts - not to mention the endless string of midweek games lined up over the coming weeks - they need to find a way to balance the need to rotate with the team's most essential players. Depth is great, but it doesn't solve problems all by itself.