For the first 45 minutes against New York City FC, D.C. United was back on course. Rather than hanging on for dear life, or digging themselves a gigantic hole in the first 21 minutes, or digging themselves a similarly-sized hole in just 4 minutes, United played steady, sturdy soccer at Yankee Stadium. The goal involved some cruelty, as the two biggest mistakes anyone on either side made before halftime - Andrea Pirlo's pass to Chris Rolfe, and Jason Hernandez's bizarre decision to abandon his post to pressure Rolfe immediatley after - were swiftly punished by Alvaro Saborio's sidefooted 37th minute finish.
And then it all went to hell, as the Mr. Hyde version of United - the one that can't control the pace of play, or stay focused, or avoid giving the ball away in bad spots - returned with a vengeance. An energized NYCFC pulled level earl in the second half through ex (on paper, anyway) United man Thomas McNamara, and from there the Black-and-Red were back to hanging on for dear life. McNamara, David Villa, and Kwadwo Poku proved to be an unstoppable trio, and Villa's 80th minute gamewinner was, on some level, not a surprise. A previously incompatible New York side short on confidence and cohesion - you know, the kind of team United usually beats up on - suddenly looked rampant.
Our Words (Steven Streff): "At the end of the first half on Thursday against New York City FC, D.C. United looked to be in good position to increase their lead atop of the Supporters' Shield standings. Chris Rolfe set up Alvaro Saborio for the halftime lead. But United struggled against a surging NYCFC in the second half, as goals from Tommy McNamara, David Villa, and Kwadwo Poku gave NYCFC the 3-1 win."
MLSsoccer.com (Dylan Butler): "Pirlo’s attempted back pass landed at the feet of Chris Rolfe, who turned and made a long run toward goal before finding Saborio on his right. The Costa Rican tapped in to put the visitors in front, 1-0 in the 36th minute."
Empire of Soccer (Dave Martinez): "New York City took control in the second half, sending several shots in on Hamid’s net behind the efforts of Villa and Kwadwo Poku. Poku managed the first real danger of the half, turning on a Villa feed and forcing Hamid into a diving save.
Poku continued the onslaught, this time freeing Tommy McNamara on a brilliant run and serving the winger on the far post for the tying goal in the 51st minute. That goal put an end to Hamid’s league best 400 minute shutout streak. Poku later clanged a shot off the far post, nearly beating the steady DC keeper."
Hudson River Blue (Sam Dunn): "The breakthrough came in the 80th minute. United lost possession as the ball trickled to the feet of Andrea Pirlo. The maestro acted quickly, looping a resplendent bounce-pass ahead to a racing David Villa. In a glimmering moment of individual skill, El Guaje squeezed through two jockeying defenders to poke an unlikely shot past Hamid to give his team the lead."
Washington Post (Steve Goff): "Hamid prevented further damage with a diving save on Villa, but even within a goal, United wasn’t a threat to steal a point. ... The clincher came in the 88th minute when Poku made a long run at Boswell and beat Hamid with low shot."
Ben Olsen (overall thoughts on the game): "Our inability tonight to show up for the entire game was the difference. Give them credit - they came with really good energy in the second half. They turned it up, and we turned it down. We thought it was going to be another night when we squeaked by, and when we don’t have to stay at a certain level. When you do that, it’s a dangerous game that you play, and we got bit. We’ve been asking to get bit a little bit. Hopefully, this is a lesson for all of us to get back that chip that we need to win in this league."
Olsen again (on Markus Halsti's play: "I thought his range of passing changes our team. He got leggy there and so we have to get his fitness up to be a 90-minute player. But I thought he was very good. "
Chris Rolfe (on the difference between the halves): "Thought we had one of our best halves in the last few weeks at least. Coming out in the second half we were confident in continuing that path. They put it to us. They had a lot more energy. They were confident in what they wanted to do, and it showed."
Jason Kreis (on how much the win meant to NYCFC): "I think it's an important win. It could be a huge win for us, and a season changer for us, and a momentum changer for us. I'm hopeful of that, and I'm hopeful the locker room feels the same way."
Andrea Pirlo (on the difference between the halves): "During the week we worked really hard. We changed our style and the way of thinking, because we could not continue to work like that. There was of course the mistake of the goal in the first half, but the team continued to do better and we played well in the second half."
This loss has been a long time coming for United. The immaturity shown against Philadelphia and RSL don't really apply here, though. Rather, I'd direct you to think about United's last five road games: Dominated by NYCFC, outshot 25 to 1 by Montreal and 26 to 6 in Dallas, largely outplayed by a badly short-handed Seattle (the only Sounders win in a 9 game span before this weekend's thrashing of Orlando), and badly outplayed by a 10-man (!) Union team in the Open Cup.
We're all used to United tending to give up more shots than they take, but the margins at Toyota Stadium and Stade Saputo are obviously way out of balance with the normal disparity (which, off the top of my head, feels like it's roughly 16-12). We know that a trip across country to play against a giant Sounders crowd is tough. We know that games against the Union are generally tense and dramatic regardless of what the standings say.
None of that accounts for this trend of bad - not sub-par, not mediocre, but actually bad - road performances. Seattle was missing all of their main weapons, and probably should have won long before Tyrone Mears scored his first goal in half a decade. Dallas should not have needed Fabian Castillo's stoppage-time game-winner. The Impact are probably still unable to think about United's visit without becoming enraged that they let the Black-and-Red off the hook.
NYCFC deserves some credit for putting together what was easily their best half of the season. I have no idea what Jason Kreis is going to do about incorporating Frank Lampard, because the front six he had on the field can't really be touched without breaking the fragile confidence they got from this win. So sure, it takes two to tango and NYCFC played some great soccer after halftime.
However, it's not like United is unable to control a game on the road. This club went to BMO Field and contained Sebastian Giovinco. They've gone to BC Place and deservedly beaten the Whitecaps (a win that could still be critical down the road in the Supporters Shield race). They beat the Chicago Fire with a B team in Bridgeview. It's impossible to argue that it's beyond their capabilities.
What is not difficult to argue is that those good road performances are from months ago. The "little things" approach United is supposed to be so good at hasn't really been there for a while now. Look at Alvaro Saborio - a street-wise veteran of MLS, CCL, World Cups, and European leagues - pass directly to Pirlo for the game-winner. Go ahead and watch the video if you didn't spend the entire weekend stewing about this play.
Think about the circumstances: United has been hanging on for dear life for 35 minutes at this point. They just won the ball back thanks to some composed defending and the tracking back of Rolfe to pick up the second ball. Rolfe smartly finds Perry Kitchen - who misplaced just 2 of 48 passes - who in turn provides a purposeful pass to Sabo rather than hacking it clear. Miguel Aguilar is putting in a full sprint to get there and help out. NYCFC is stretched out and already scrambling at midfield.
At worst, this should end with Saborio holding play up long enough that United can string together some passes. The eventual turnover from this situation should come deep in New York territory. At best, Saborio should feed Aguilar's storming run, where he has an angle to either split Angelino and Shay Facey or force one of them into a potential DOGSO foul. This is a situation where United should be upset that all they accomplished was taking the air out of the ball for a minute.
Instead, Saborio chooses not to pass to Aguilar at all after avoiding Jason Hernandez. That kills the chance that this is a menacing counter, but the chance to play smart soccer is still very much present. He dribbles backward to evade Andoni Iraola, and has Chris Pontius available for a very easy pass in a pocket of space. Saborio also has a different pocket of space to turn into and carry the ball 5-10 yards further forward.
Instead, he opts for this:
You should never give the ball to a player like Pirlo if he's on the other team. More than that, though...who the hell was the intended recipient for this pass? If it's intended to find Kitchen, it's too late (hence the window that ends up being too small). Or maybe it's an attempt to swing the ball to Michael Farfan, who is in acres of space but would require a ball that can pass through solid matter Kitty Pryde style. I don't know what the specific idea was, but I do know that it was a bad one.
It's this lack of attention to detail that currently seems like United's biggest weakness of late. Montreal didn't take 25 shots because of individual defending; they had those looks because of failings further upfield. Passing choices, bad runs, absent-minded first touches, and thoughtless clearances all contribute to keeping a team that already tends to have to defend a lot pinned deep into their own end. This Saborio mistake was punished, but it's far from the only instance of United causing themselves huge problems in games that were already plenty difficult.
The Last Word:
United is looking at a four-game stretch that will probably see this sort of naive play punished. On Wednesday, United has what on paper is their most vital CCL group stage game (in Panama against Arabe Unido). In the Champions League, a different kind of naivety - expecting reasonable, just, attentive officiating - is often punished, and no club in CCL history has CONCACAFed harder than Arabe Unido over the years. This team is better than the Tauro FC club United waved away without getting out of second gear.
That's followed by a weekend home game against Dom Kinnear's San Jose Earthquakes. Kinnear's teams are always built around solidity, safety, and opportunism (sound familiar?). You can be sure their ability to goal-poach, convert set pieces, and counter with tremendous speed will crop up to punish United if they're not very, very smart all over the field. United will then have to do a professional job against Montego Bay United, who Arabe managed to beat 3-0 in Panama. Goal difference in a group where there's virtually no margin for error might be huge.
The end of the eleven-day barrage? Only the single most important game United has played since facing LD Alajuelense: On the road against the New York Red Bulls, who are currently the most in-form team in the Eastern Conference. If United is going to win the Supporters Shield - or, if LA just never loses again, merely the East - this game can't end in a defeat. And, you know, the whole hated rival thing is also a pretty big friggin' deal.
The bottom line is this: United is supposed to be MLS's street-smart, cunning, cynical bastard of a team that everyone hates to play. That stereotype still exists despite the Black-and-Red not really living up to it for the past six weeks. If that version of United doesn't come back very soon, the Black-and-Red are going to be one of the many "well, if they round into form in October, you never know" playoff teams in MLS rather than a team celebrating a 14th trophy and being talked up as an MLS Cup contender.