It's hard to imagine anyone affiliated with D.C. United was happy to have a game Wednesday night. It's all about the context: This fixture was just four days after a road game on turf against New England and three days before facing a well-rested Philadelphia team that always plays physical soccer against the Black-and-Red. Even more importantly, this game was on the west coast, on turf again, against a Portland Timbers team talking as if one more loss would basically end their season.
Pessimism in that context was natural, and for anyone whose glass was still half-full things changed when United's lineup was announced. No Perry Kitchen. No Bobby Boswell. No Chris Rolfe, or Davy Arnaud either. All of those absences combined with United's known injuries - Fabian Espindola, Luis Silva, Nick DeLeon, and Michael Farfan among them - saw Ben Olsen field a starting eleven that sounded more "Open Cup match against lower-division team" than "MLS league game."
In the end, the Timbers scored early and looked for about half an hour like they could score two or three more. Despite an improvement in the minutes before and after halftime, that one goal from Maxi Urruti was enough: United fell 1-0, which means it's been three games without a win and just one goal in those 270 minutes.
Our Words (Steven Streff): "Olsen's changed charges had a rough go of most of the first half cemented by Urruti's goal in the 5th minute. Portland's pressure forced a turnover deep in DC's half from Taylor Kemp, allowing Gaston Fernandez to take a positive touch towards the box. Fernandez then sent a ball through the box to the far post, where Urruti was on the spot to smash home for the early 1-0 lead."
The Washington Post (Steve Goff): "United labored to sustain meaningful possession through most of the first half. The best chance for an equalizer came when Birnbaum, in his first appearance in two months, missed an open header from eight yards. United enjoyed its best spell of the half just before intermission. The build-up was better, and Arrieta and Doyle put themselves in dangerous spots. Arrieta’s shot was blocked in the box by a defender and Doyle ripped a 17-yard effort over the crossbar."
Stumptown Footy (William Conwell): "As the Timbers' grew more compact on defense, they found the field opening up for them and players like Dairon Asprilla and second half substitute Rodney Wallace were primed to take advantage. The Timbers hit D.C. on the break repeatedly, getting only seven shots off in the second half, but forcing six saves out of Hamid, including several point blank efforts that he had no business getting a finger to."
MLSsoccer.com (Dan Itel): "D.C. applied more pressure to start the half, resulting in a Birnbaum shot that flew straight to Timbers ‘keeper Adam Kwarasey in the 47th minute and a Conor Doyle shot that was pushed just wide three minutes later."
Back to our recap: "With options on the bench limited, Olsen brought on Bobby Boswell late for Aguilar to play up top, to win any headers that might come his way. But United failed to really challenge from there, and after four minutes of stoppage time, United were condemned to another 1-0 loss on the road."
Ben Olsen (on the first half): "Overall, very pleased with the group’s effort and for a large stretch of the game. Unfortunately you have to weather a little bit of a storm when you come here and I didn’t think we were up to the physicality and the speed that they were early in the game and ends up costing us the goal."
Caleb Porter (on Portland's strong start): "[F]irst half I thought was very aggressive and that’s key. You can lose energy when you’re not getting results. When you do that you are dead in the water. That’s not going to happen here. You will see a good response out of these guys. Our goal was to come in aggressive. We score a goal four minutes in and that was the difference in the match. Like I said I thought we should have had a couple more. I don’t think it was bad finishing. [Dairon] Asprilla had a couple good chances and a few were seriously world-class saves, two or three of them."
Will Johnson (on the win): "Huge. The only thing that matters tonight is not about me, it’s about three points for this club. We needed it badly. We need to get going in the right direction quickly. We spoke a lot about urgency this week and I think that’s what you saw at the start of the game."
Kofi Opare (on United's performance): "I thought it was alright, it was a decent performance by the guys. Obviously with the makeshift lineup it was a little difficult to get used to the personnel on the field but I think the guys for the most part did alright. Substitutes that came in made a difference, I thought. Being away from home, cross country having multiple games in three or four days I think the guys did alright. It’s now time to regroup and look forward to [Philadelphia] this weekend."
Without context - if you had not ever seen an MLS game and didn't know about either team's squad - you'd have to assume that United was a game, scrappy, but limited team that was probably headed for a finish in MLS's bottom half, while the Timbers were likely to finish somewhere around 7th. United had their chances, of course: Steve Birnbaum's back post miss was egregious, and Jairo Arrieta likely had a goal taken away from him thanks to a superb diving block by Liam Ridgewell. Still, though, if you were picking a team out of the 22 starters in this game, maybe 8 of them would come from PTFC.
Context is always important in soccer, though. Based on the starting lineups, I predicted a 2-0 defeat; after seeing United concede five minutes in, I was worried that this was going to turn into a straight-up rout. It threatened to do just that, thanks mostly to Portland funneling their attacks towards Dairon Asprilla and Taylor Kemp. United also had trouble tracking Fernandez, who dropped into the midfield whenever DCU expected him to stay high and stayed high whenever he was supposed to drop off. Going the other way, United could barely get anything going at the other end. Long story short, things looked like we were getting the game the lineups promised.
A funny thing happened after about half an hour into the game, though: The one-way traffic stopped. Kemp started initiating contact with Asprilla rather than being pushed aside every time. Fernandez lost interest once United's center backs and central midfielders sussed out his movements. United wasn't creating enough on offense to say the game was even, but Birnbaum's miss after Kwarasey badly misjudged Markus Halsti's corner would have given United a gut-punch goal and a 1-1 scoreline going into halftime. United's B team was suddenly competing, and were the better team for the middle third of the match.
Soccer's a funny game. When there aren't many goals, we tend to remember how things start and how things end. The first impression in everything goes a long way, while how something ends is obviously our most recent memory of a game, or a book, or a movie. It's the middle that - unless there are big, remarkable events - gets blurry or outright forgotten.
That's not particularly helpful in evaluating games. Fans entered this game already upset with a straight-up bad game against the Union followed by a game that - amusingly enough - was only disappointing in context. 1-1 in New England, after all, sounds OK until you note that United had over half an hour with a two-man advantage against a team on short rest. That opening 30 minutes confirmed all of those negative opinions, while the closing stages - with Bill Hamid standing on his head while Halsti seemed like the only player capable of influencing proceedings - were admittedly frustrating.
However, that middle section saw United - featuring several players who wouldn't make the gameday 18 in a healthy squad - edging a game in Portland against a Timbers side that was starting 9 of their 11 best starters. That's not to say they had PTFC on the ropes or anything, but they were the slightly better side for a while. With someone like Espindola, Rolfe, or Silva on the field, maybe one of those half-chances that Arrieta or Conor Doyle sent over the bar ends up going in the back of the net.
So it wasn't a good night, but let's not fall into the trap of thinking it was a horrific night. The trips to Philly and north Jersey were far worse, and that was with a better group of players on the field. Hamid continued his excellent play, and Halsti already looks like a tidy, cerebral defensive midfielder:
Halsti is class. Baltic seawater coursing through those veins. Cooler than a black reindeer's tookus on a moonless Arctic night. #PORvDC— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) May 28, 2015
The Last Word:
Here's what I'm getting at: Don't worry too much that a poorly-timed set of injuries and a sadistic schedule encouraged United to more or less punt this game. The performance wasn't good in a vacuum, but given the players involved it wasn't an affront to decency. United started two guys who have spent their season on loan with Richmond, after all.
However, you are free to start getting negative about this team if they can't produce a win at RFK tomorrow against the Union. Never mind that the Union have two straight wins; they happened to catch both United and NYRB on arguably their worst nights of the season. The Union aren't as bad as their record indicates, and top players like Espindola and Silva aren't coming back yet, but that doesn't matter. With the players United rested for this match, there's no option but to defeat the Union. This loss was all about context, but there's virtually no context that would excuse a loss (or even a draw) tomorrow. You don't get to punt like this and then fail to make the second game pay off.