It's a short-ish week for D.C. United, and that might be a good thing. Five days between games will give the Black-and-Red less time to sulk over a very disappointing loss to New York City FC. NYCFC entered the game having conceded eight goals in their three road games, yet left RFK with a shutout that ended up not even requiring any special effort on their part. United had an adequate first half in which they wasted a couple of good chances - the visitors, it has to be said, did the same - but were utterly predictable after the halftime break.
I know it's not the right time of year for this, but in trying to come up with a theme for this piece I found myself thinking of the phrase "I got a lot of problems with you people!," famously bellowed by George Costanza's father on Seinfeld at the start of Festivus. United was disappointing in a lot of ways on the night, so we're going to air our grievances right here:
Starting Patrick Nyarko despite his suffering from some sort of illness
This is one I've heard a lot since Ben Olsen noted that Nyarko tried to play despite being sick. I'm not sure it's a valid grievance, though, because Nyarko likely came through the warm-up looking capable of playing at least 45 minutes. Otherwise, Olsen would have made the change before the game. We have to remember some things here: First, figuring out if a player has enough juice to go is still an art rather than a science. Science has become more involved via things like heart rate monitors and other medical data that teams keep, but what if the data isn't quite indicating the problem? The eyeball test is still a major factor in moments like this.
Second, United desperately needs Nyarko on the field (which we'll get to in a moment). It's easier to replace, say, an ill center back when the Black-and-Red can turn to Kofi Opare. United has options on the wing, but the only player that can replace Nyarko's dribbling ability out there is Miguel Aguilar (who, while promising, is not at Nyarko's level). There are risks worth taking, and even though United got burned on this one, I can see the thought process in rolling the dice on Nyarko being able to gut out a half while playing at a reasonable level.
The first substitution: Jared Jeffrey replacing Nyarko
This may be my biggest grievance of all. I understand the decision to take a chance on Nyarko, but once it became clear he was playing poorly and needed to come off for the good of the team, Jeffrey was not the right player to bring on. Let's remember the context: It's the 27th minute of a 0-0 game at home. NYCFC is dropping into a very conservative 4141, and they're having their most organized defensive performance of the season. United, in a 442, is outnumbered through the middle, and NYCFC's use of possession as a defensive tool is slowing the game to a tempo that DCU doesn't really prefer.
In moments like that, United really couldn't afford to reduce the number of players who can prosper on the dribble in the game. This team, even at the best of times, isn't skillful enough as a passing team to play the sort of intricate game needed to open up two blocks of four with a smart defensive midfielder lurking between the lines. United needed that ability to pry the defense open one-on-one.
Bringing Jeffrey in did the opposite. I understand the idea of wanting to reward Jeffrey for his good work as a stand-in for Marcelo Sarvas. Tactically, though, it was not what United needed. Jeffrey made United more conservative in central midfield, and Nick DeLeon - who shifted to the wing to fill Nyarko's shoes - is well known as a conservative option on the flank.
The move forced United to be a slower-paced, possession team almost entirely reliant on Luciano Acosta to break between layers of defense. It also robbed the Black-and-Red of valuable width in a game where they were routinely outnumbered in the center. Between those two changes, United's pace of play and ability to cut through the defense were severely hindered, and it's no accident that the second half was like watching paint dry for DC's attack. Acosta's quick feet won some free kicks...and that was about it.
I know Olsen has indicated that he's not quite ready to trust Aguilar. And I get why: Aguilar takes risks on the ball at the wrong time too often, while his defensive reactions and positioning are still in need of a lot of work. However, in this case, I think United needed to roll the dice and keep a significant dribbling threat somewhere on the field. If the fear was that left back Ronald Matarrita would exploit Aguilar, then swap him and Neagle. United needed the width badly enough that the gamble would have been worth it in my book.
Alvaro Saborio's finishing
Sabo did not bring his shooting boots, firing one great chance over the bar and then failing to actually get a shot away when clean through on goal late in the first half. I will say that I feel less aggrieved about Saborio in this game for the simple fact that he was more active and engaged than in some of his truly disappointing starting appearances. He was getting into scoring positions, at least in the first half. He was offside too often, but at least he was trying to run in behind. It was still a bad outing for Saborio, but he was engaged in the game. If any of his scoring chances had gone in, we'd be saying he had a decent-to-good game. Such is life for a #9.
Bobby Boswell's whole night
This is simply not good enough:
The clearance is transparently awful. It's thoughtless, weak, and the only DC player with any chance of getting a touch is Jeffrey, who is still inside the box and would have been lunging to toe-poke it at best. It's not just that, though. A veteran like Boswell needs to have the awareness of what was going on during that phase of the game. NYCFC had just taken a 1-0 lead, and United looked basically dead on their feet. The Black-and-Red had not mentally come out of the locker room yet.
In a moment like that, what United needed was a simple, no-nonsense clearance. When your whole team isn't quite mentally involved yet, keeping things as straightforward as possible is how you escape without further damage. There are times where the actual soccer side of the game - passing, thinking, etc - isn't working for your group, and you have to get through it by fighting, avoiding mistakes, and being as uncomplicated as possible. And that's the kind of thing your veteran leaders need to be able to sense more quickly than their teammates.
Instead, Boswell's clearance hands NYCFC another chance to put the ball into the area, and because he's busy realizing how bad his clearance was, he's also not prepared for the charging run of Khiry Shelton. Shelton won the header over Boswell and Taylor Kemp because he was at a full sprint before leaping, and then used Boswell as a jumping aid to hang in the air long enough to score.
The other substitutions seem flawed
After Marcelo hit the post with a free kick on the hour mark, United could have kicked into gear. Instead, it was more of the same: NYCFC would play keepaway whenever possible, and when United did get the ball they didn't have enough options and were too slow of thought to break down the organized defense in front of them. The Black-and-Red needed an injection of life around the 65th minute.
Instead, we had to wait until the 82nd minute, when Julian Buescher came on for Acosta. Given that Acosta was on a yellow card and had a slight hitch in his step after a collision along the touchline in the 79th or 80th minute, that move didn't bother me in and of itself. Buescher is more of a shooting threat than Acosta, and with the game winding down, players who think of shooting earlier in their thought process become a necessity.
However, that should have been United's third sub. Aguilar (or even Rob Vincent) should have come on earlier, because NYCFC were very effectively taking the air out of the ball. And that sub should have been for someone other than Lamar Neagle, who provides some speed and more of a goal threat than the players that were on the field at the time. In my book at least, Aguilar should have replaced DeLeon, or possibly even Jeffrey (who at that point in the game was filling a role that didn't really need to be part of United's plan, as NYCFC was not attacking through the middle).
Even as is, the sub could have been more of a threat. Aguilar could have come on for Sean Franklin and been a "right back" whose responsibilities are almost entirely to attack. Now, it could be that Neagle was gassed, which makes that sub some smart long-term thinking. However, Neagle looked no more or less tired than anyone else - admittedly, this is my view from the stands rather than on the sidelines with the training staff to consult with - and NYCFC is just shaky enough that they could throw away a 2-0 lead in the 84th minute.
United is bad at home
Two wins, one draw, three losses. That's where United sits at RFK this season, and if you expand it out to include the CONCACAF Champions League it's 2W-2D-3L. That's not good enough, especially when you consider just how much United relied on points on East Capitol St. last year. In 2015, the Black-and-Red picked up 36 of their 51 points at RFK Stadium. That's 70.6% of their total on the year. In 2014, it was 37 of 59 total points, or 62.7%. Combined, the Black-and-Red lost just five times at home over those two years.
I hate to end an already upsetting piece on such a down note, but for United to match the 11 home wins in each of the past two years, they can only be held to a draw or lose two more times on the banks of the Anacostia for the rest of the year. Most likely, getting back to 50+ points for the third straight years is going to require picking up some wins - not draws, people...wins - on the road. There is a glimmer of hope on that front, as United is on a three-game road unbeaten streak (all draws). Still, on both fronts, this team has to improve if they want to get back into the playoffs.