Around 6:05 Wednesday night, there was a sound heard throughout the greater DC area. That sound was the collective gasp from D.C. United fans upon seeing the lineup their side was sending out against the Chicago Fire. You know things have gotten weird when Bill Hamid misses a game and it's not the major pre-match talking point in Lot 8 or on the Metro. The back four featured only one player with any real experience as a fullback. There were reasonable people asking if Ben Olsen was suddenly playing a back three. The forward pairing of Conor Doyle (who recently inspired this fan post from an entirely reasonable B&RU regular) and Jairo Arrieta looked like it was designed to simply hope for Chicago turnovers until Fabian Espindola or Luis Silva could come in and save the day.
At halftime, all of those concerns looked accurate (though Andrew Dykstra, deputizing for Hamid, saved a penalty kick and looked generally solid). Steve Birnbaum was actually playing alright at left back, but he conceded a penalty kick defending the sort of crossfield pass that he is never on the end of when playing his natural position. Jon Busch had barely been troubled in Chicago's goal. Things were not going well.
Then Espindola came on at halftime and United looked like a completely different team in terms of mentality and attitude. In the end, Chicago's smart road approach in the first half was completely overrun by one of United's best halves of 2015. Arrieta scored twice, Doyle grabbed the third, Espindola had 2 assists, and the people who found a way to make it out on a Wednesday night were rewarded with a deserved 3-1 win.
Our Words (Steven Streff): "United were forced to play the game without Bill Hamid, Chris Pontius, and Chris Korb, all of whom picked up minor injuries last Saturday against the Philadelphia Union. ... In the 5th minute, when United has conceded the past two games, the Fire had a decent chance to open the scoring. A Joevin Jones foray forward from the left back position led to the ball falling to Michael Stephens in the box. Stephens, with his back to goal, quickly passed the ball back to Harrison Shipp, who had his shot saved by Dykstra."
The Washington Post (Steve Goff): "Dykstra foiled the Fire...in the 27th minute, extending to his right to push Jeff Larentowicz’s penalty kick off the post. Referee Edvin Jurisevic rightly awarded the penalty when Birnbaum slapped a dangerous cross with his right hand."
Hot Time In Old Town (Sean Spence): "The Fire had the better chances in the first half, with David Accam's 27th-minute goal the pick of the lot. Meanwhile, DC seemed starved of ideas how to break the visitors down - absent some kind of complete meltdown (dramatic foreshadowing, y'all), Chicago was looking good to get something out of the game."
MLSsoccer.com (Pablo Maurer): "...the Black-and-Red came out of halftime a transformed team, inspired by substitute Fabian Espindola. Seeing his first action in six matches after recovering from a knee injury, the Argentine immediately sparked the United attack and Arrieta nabbed United’s equalizer at the hour mark. ... Espindola swung in a dangerous corner kick and Arrieta rose to redirect the service perfectly, his glancing header eluding Busch’s dive."
Back to our recap: "The Fire seemed to get back into the game following Arrieta's equalizer, without threatening Dykstra. They were able to find the space in the next couple of minutes, but didn't manage to get a shot away. And just like that, Arrieta scored again to give United the lead. Espindola played a ball out to DeLeon, who got in the box, and tried to play a give and go with Arrieta. ... Arrieta's pass back to DeLeon was blocked by Jones, but the ball fell right back to Arrieta. From 12 yards out, Arrieta made no mistake, beating Busch with a first time shot for the 2-1 lead, and his team leading fifth goal of the season."
And let's close with HTIOT again: "It's possible that we were a bobble away from a tie game there - but it's also possible that the Fire would've given up all the points even had that ball gone in. The mass hypnosis that greeted Espindola's well-aimed but not astonishing cross in the 76th could've cropped up at any time; it looked like either centerback could've attacked the cross and banged it out for a set piece, but they seemed caught between the thought and the motion, taking a step toward their marks, a step toward the now-past ball, and looking hopefully behind. There was no help to be found - Conor Doyle beat Joevin Jones to the ball, and chipped the clincher off Busch's hands and in."
Ben Olsen (on how his plans to use Espindola changed): "He was going to be the first sub, but I might have held off a little bit in the second half if the game wasn’t what it was in the first half. The first half wasn’t good enough. I don’t think we had any good performances, besides Andrew, in the first half. It’s been happening too much lately and it’s been addressed; but the quality and energy in the first half wasn’t good enough. Fortunately, we had Fabi in the bag. He came in and completely changed our whole mentality. He brought quality and energy, and that’s contagious."
Olsen again (on Arrieta having 5 goals in 2015 after scoring just 8 in his previous two seasons): "Good coaching (laughs). Jairo can score goals. He’s done it throughout his career. He’s a true number nine and we needed that. If you see him play he really, really likes scoring goals. So I’m happy he’s doing it for us."
Olsen one more time (on the unusual back four): "Korb was a late scratch so we had to scramble and we went with Steve. I thought he did fine, besides the hand ball. It’s not easy to put a guy in a new position for the first time and I thought overall he did pretty well. It’s good to know that we can use that if we get in to trouble."
Jairo Arrieta (on Espindola): "When Fabián came in, our attack was instantly better. I have a good understanding with him. I think Fabián, you guys all know the quality he has. His movement is phenomenal, and like I said, we have a great understanding. I feel comfortable with him and I hope to keep pairing up with him and hopefully the team will benefit."
Kofi Opare (on how things changed at halftime): "Obviously the first half started a little slow. It looked a little lethargic I thought. The second half we, at half time, had time to regroup and adjust some things tactically and I think we made some minor changes that in the second half we implemented. Obviously with the addition of Fabi definitely helped us. Him, Davy, they definitely made a difference when they came on. Also, Facundo as well."
Chicago head coach Frank Yallop (overall thoughts on the game): "If you look at the way we played it was very good and basically at half time it’s more of the same. I knew they were going to change the game with putting players on. Espíndola comes on and makes a difference but we seemed to stop playing. You’ve got to credit D.C. for the forceful play but we’ve got to do better at defending and handling situations. I said they’re going to change it up and get at you so we better be ready for it and we’ve got to adjust our game and play quicker or whatever it is and when we get a chance to punish them on the break, best do it so it’s disappointing were 1-0 up and lose 3-1 away from home. You know it’s never a good feeling at all."
David Accam (on United and the game itself): "For me, I think we played a good team today. So far this season this is the best team we played and it showed in that second half. Even though we were much better in the first half, we didn’t keep the tempo up and they were much better than us in the second half."
Let's talk about the things that make up a team (beyond contracts and wearing the same clothing, that is). More specifically, let's talk about the things that make up a healthy team. United is no one's pick as the most skillful team in MLS, and plenty of people prefer pressuring sides over United's bend-but-don't-break defensive philosophy. However, I'd wager that no team has United's team spirit, and things like that can go a long way.
Here's an example: The lineup United fielded last night - and in Portland, for that matter - is the kind of lineup that, on teams that aren't blessed with strong camaraderie, likely results in poor, unfocused efforts. Never mind the lack of high-end players on the field; what you get in those situations is unfocused players who step on the field assuming they will lose. There's no belief, and a lack of belief combined with a lesser group of players almost always turns out to be a loss.
Instead, United's supposed punt in Portland ended up being a far closer match than expected thanks in part to a dogged, cohesive performance from the Black-and-Red. Those players didn't take the field saying "Oh, we're the back-ups, so we're probably in trouble." They sincerely believed they could do a job against a far stronger version of the Timbers, and it showed on the scoreboard. Portland won, but they didn't steamroll a reserve side as expected.
Something similar happened last night. United was without Bill Hamid, who is undoubtedly the team's top star. They were starting without Fabian Espindola, the chief source of attacking inspiration on the roster. Chris Rolfe was suspended. One veteran midfielder (Chris Pontius) was out, while another (Davy Arnaud) was being preserved for the weekend. A late scratch saw Steve Birnbaum playing left back for the first time as a pro, and possibly the first time in his life.
United could have heard the lineup and panicked, or they could have moped their way onto the field expecting that their best chances involved grinding the game away. The first half was by no means great, but it wasn't for lack of effort or interest. United lacked proactive thought and were sloppy with the ball, but they were fighting like a team that believed that they can win with any eleven players on the roster.
The signs aren't just in the performance. Look at Arrieta celebrating his goal for probably too long, but for respectable reasons. It wasn't a drawn-out, "look at me" production. It was because he promised Facundo Coria - a guy he's been teammates with for just a couple of weeks - that they'd celebrate together if he scored. Unhealthy teams don't celebrate like that, and they don't welcome new players that enthusiastically.
Arrieta also took pains to note that United's coaches and his teammates have shown more belief in him than what he got while he was playing in Columbus. I'm not going to tell you that being on a happier team is entirely behind his goalscoring - playing in a 442 is far better for him than the 4231 the Crew used throughout his time in Ohio - but it's a factor.
Or look at the palpable joy on Arnaud's face after Conor Doyle scored his first goal in 22 months. On a team without a strong culture of togetherness, United's roster is full of players who see Doyle and choose any other passing option. They get frustrated that he's on the field. For United? They kept looking his way. They made sure he wasn't ignored on or off the field. That's the difference between a player still playing with some degree of confidence, or a guy just kicking around waiting for his inevitable release.
It extends elsewhere too. Opare made sure to include Coria as a sub that made a difference in his quotes to the press. In all likelihood, Coria isn't reading post-game quotes in the media. Opare doesn't have to make that effort, but he does. We also saw Dykstra - who could have folded mentally after the disastrous CONCACAF Champions League match against Alajuelense - step in for Hamid and play very well. Part of that is down to his own personal mental stregth, but in the wrong surroundings Dykstra carries that match with him for months.
The Last Word:
All of this is very feel-good, but let's not forget that this match turned on Espindola being the force multiplier that he is. As much as United has done well to stay atop the East without most of their best attackers, and as vital as belief and togetherness are, United's not winning any hardware unless the stars are shining. That relates to tomorrow's opponent, as TFC are going to be more or less counting on Sebastian Giovinco to carry them tomorrow in the absence of Michael Bradley (USMNT duty) and Jozy Altidore (injury). The Reds may not consider the idea of finding stars that don't cost millions, but I'd imagine they will be a bit jealous of the faith that United's players have in one another and the mental strength found throughout the Black-and-Red's roster.