D.C. United and the Philadelphia Union took the field at RFK Stadium on Saturday desperate for a win. United hadn’t so much as scored a competitive goal in 2017, while Philly’s winless streak was at ten games (extending back to August 27, 2016) as Ricardo Salazar blew his whistle to start the match. “Desperate” is overused sometimes these days, but on Saturday, it was a fair descriptor for both the teams and the soccer on display.
United won, allowing a hardy (if undersized) crowd to have a sigh of relief. Not only did they get to see a win, but they got to see a back-up forward prove he can succeed in MLS. The worries over how long Patrick Mullins will need to recover from his hamstring have subsided a bit. Meanwhile, Union fans have started to ask questions of...well, a lot of people, and reasonably so. There were pretty high stakes for a game that took place nearly seven months from when playoff spots will be settled.
So, how did United manage this victory? Let’s use a movie metaphor: After years as an gritty indie that was effective but clearly flawed, the back half of last season was a bit like watching United become a big studio action flick. Not the kind of big-budget Spider-Man vs. Batman 2: Kablamaloo movie like we see in Toronto, New York (the actual city, not nearby states), or Seattle, but one that efficiently puts its resources towards some thrilling, if inelegant entertainment.
Unfortunately, we haven’t seen as much of that version of United as we’d all like. They haven’t been able to turn games into transition battles very often, and the one time that happened, they got roasted 4-0 by NYCFC. And on Saturday, the Union controlled enough of the game through high pressure and maintaining possession that the Black-and-Red couldn’t really get out and run.
Instead, United turned back the clock in this one, returning to their gritty, grimy roots. Much like the side that got into the playoffs in 2014 and 2015, D.C. had to grind things out. They were the better team in this one for about 30 minutes (basically from the 10th minute to the 40th), but leveraged their superiority in that portion of the game into a two-goal lead. From there, game states were pretty influential: United didn’t have an incentive to attack, and the soccer side wasn’t exactly working on the day, so they went back to a retro approach. They sat deep, absorbed pressure, and maybe-probably relied on Bill Hamid too much.
Hopefully, this was just a temporary measure designed to get some points and get a reeling team on its feet. Aesthetically, I doubt there are any United fans who want to watch a full season of games like Saturday, and you have to add in the crucial fact that we have seen how that season ends twice now. It might be a viable strategy in an MLS Cup final (right, Sounders?), but you’re not going to get close to said final if this is the only way you can win games.
For a reeling team, Saturday was a game that needed to be won by any means necessary. Now that they’ve got their feet under them, we need to see United get back to the style they’re built to play. For one thing, it’s hard to turn back once you’ve had a glimpse of a world where your team scores freely and is fun to watch. Secondly, the recipe for a win over Philly isn’t going to work against NYCFC this weekend, and it won’t work at Red Bull Arena on April 15. Lose those two games, and we’re back to the same desperation we had before kicking off against Philadelphia.
Jim Curtin seems like an up-and-coming young coach. He’s one of the most open in the league when it comes to dealing with the media, his teams try to possess the ball and attack, and he’s been willing to trust young players right out of the gate (as Andre Blake, Keegan Rosenberry, Derrick Jones, and Fabian Herbers can confirm).
Fortunately for United, he still has a lot to learn. I won’t mince words: Curtin’s decision to start Jay Simpson over CJ Sapong is simply baffling. Sapong - or at least, the current version of Sapong, and not the guy who only scored twice from mid-May onward in 2016 - is clearly a better player than Simpson. He’s faster, he’s stronger, and the Union are better off using him as a rugged target man than deploying a replacement-level body up front.
On top of that, Sapong’s history at RFK, dating back to his time with Kansas City, has generally been to be at his very best. The Manassas native steps it up when he comes home, in other words, and we’re also talking about someone who now has 75% of Philly’s goals on the year. In these circumstances, you start that player. This should have been an easy choice.
The other Union problem right now appears to be that Philly has not sorted out a viable solution to teams that play in behind or that deploy quick, mobile attackers. The Union defense isn’t particularly unathletic; they simply seem unprepared for a very common look in MLS. That’s an ongoing issue for them, and until they figure out how to either keep the game in front of them, or to scramble effectively, they’re going to struggle badly.
Marcelo, Marcelo, Marcelo
Let’s start with the good: Marcelo Sarvas had his best game of 2017. Granted, the Union’s continued use of Alejandro Bedoya as a 10 who doesn’t playmake and doesn’t score goals was a big help, but progress is progress. Marcelo completed 79% of his passes, well above the team’s 74% on the night, and all but one of his nine misplaced passes were vertical, line-breaking attempts. He lost the ball trying to take attacking risks, rather than being careless or being forced to turn the ball over by Union pressure.
He produced 15 recoveries on his own, which is an outstanding total. This is, more than anything else, what keeps Marcelo involved as a starter. He consistently ends up being the player most likely to get the ball back into United’s control, and compared to his peers around the league he’s one of the best in the category in MLS. By comparison, the entire Union central midfield trio produced 24. It’s not a sexy category, but it’s an important one.
Marcelo also produced a goal-line block, had 5 interceptions, won 3 tackles, and actually won more free kicks (3) than he gave away (1). But we have to talk about that lone foul committed, because it was a doozy:
This is so dirty from Marcelo Sarvas. Holy hell man. pic.twitter.com/Q6eni7Jx2V— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) April 2, 2017
There are a lot of problems with this. On the less important end of the scale, Marcelo needs to realize what’s actually going on: Sapong is rolling over to blindly poke the ball away from what is a double team. Watch where it goes: into a spot where Luciano Acosta is likely going to pick it up while on the run. Marcelo’s mere presence has caused this; diving in for anything is totally unnecessary.
There’s also the broader context. As the oldest player on the field, Marcelo should know two facts better than anyone: first of all, two-footed, locked-ankle stomps are punishable by a red card. Second, this happened in the 65th minute of a game United is leading 2-0, but is also under extreme pressure. The Union had held over 60% of the possession in the five minutes before this tackle, and upped that to 65% in the five that followed. United, meanwhile, were nearly half an hour away from their next shot attempt at the moment this happened.
If Salazar had pulled a red card - and how he didn’t, I’ll never know - United would have had to hang on for dear life for 25+ minutes with ten men. They were only just barely able to hold off a Union comeback with eleven. We’ll never know how things would have shaken out, but I can certainly tell you that I doubt we’d be talking about a D.C. win right now if this is handled properly.
However, all of that is secondary to me. My biggest problem with this tackle is simply the danger it puts Sapong in. If Marcelo lands flush - and while I don’t think he’s trying to land flush here, he’s also one slight miscalculation away from doing so - Sapong probably needs an ambulance.
You can break a player’s leg tackling like this, and there’s no justifiable reason to ever go in like this. I have advocated for physical play plenty of times, but there’s physical and there’s dangerous. I take no joy in saying that Marcelo got suspended. I don’t look forward to facing an NYCFC team that brutally exposed United’s central midfield a few weeks ago without the Black-and-Red’s best defensive midfielder. But the reality is that he deserved the one game ban that he got (and arguably is getting lucky it’s only one game), and United is going to have to deal with the consequences as a team this weekend.
For all of these reasons, Marcelo should know better than to go in like this. It shows callous disregard for his fellow competitor, and it put his team in an extremely bad spot that they were lucky to escape, and it will put his team in a second bad spot this weekend. It served no purpose, and in fact turned a break upfield into a free kick going the other way.