Putting together a piece for D.C. United’s loss against the Columbus Crew had been evading me on Sunday and Monday. There are a lot of things to be frustrated about, and they’re magnified because there are positives leading up to the bad parts. The road to hell is being paved with some decent soccer at times, which just compounds the misery when it all goes wrong.
So last night, rather than beating my head against a wall over that and the USMNT program’s near-stasis, I put soccer out of my mind and went to see Annihilation before it left theaters. First, I know you didn’t come here for a movie recommendation, but you should track it down before it leaves theaters. This won’t be the same experience when you stream it at home. Second, and more to the point, the movie’s themes of self-destruction and getting in your own way were presented superbly.
Naturally, after going to sleep with fantastic, unsettling visuals pinging around my head, this piece coalesced overnight (so if you’re reading, thanks Alex Garland!). United’s self-destructive tendencies are threatening to leave them short of the point total they’re going to have to come out of this long, weird first half of the season with if they have any hopes of joining the playoff race with their string of late-season home games.
It starts in the back, where mistakes are always more glaring. United gave up the Crew’s opener in maddening fashion: after being the better team for the opening 20 minutes (and doing so in a brave, not-unpleasant-to-watch fashion), a simple mistake from Joseph Mora as part of United’s attempt to draw a high line of contention opens up a Columbus break forward, which the Crew smartly compound by attacking the space Mora left open. Mora recovered to block a cross for a throw-in, which became a second Crew throw-in soon thereafter.
Nothing particularly big here, right? Harrison Afful tries to feed a run from Artur on the second throw-in, which Mora intercepts...but doesn’t actually control. It’s not the easiest ball, given that it’s at his waistline, but it’s a ball he should be able to do something with. Instead, he merely deflects the ball, gifting Artur possession. In the exact same moment, Chris Durkin freezes up, possibly surprised that Mora isn’t doing more with the ball, and loses Cristian Martinez. The Crew deserve credit from there — Artur, Martinez, and goalscorer Milton Valenzuela all show composure and skill to turn this opportunity into a goal — but it all comes back to a mistake that a player of Mora’s caliber shouldn’t be making.
There’s a similar feeling about the game-ending third goal. I’d love to grouse more about Drew Fischer’s incomprehensible choice to not call a foul on Lalas Abubakar, but this is part of MLS. If you’re not able to overcome a bad call on the road sometimes, you’re probably not going to the playoffs. The killer error here is a bit less noticeable, but it’s still a big mistake. This time, it’s Darren Mattocks and Paul Arriola both freezing in place expecting the right call to be made. This allows Abubakar to find Artur, who senses United’s collectively slow reaction to what’s happening and pushes the ball forward immediately to Federico Higuain. It’s off to the races from there, and United committed one of the cardinal sins as a team trying to high-press. You simply can’t afford to push numbers upfield without also being extremely quick to react when you lose the ball. Columbus though a split-second faster in a crucial moment, and they effectively ended the game when Pedro Santos tapped the Martinez cross in at the back post.
These big, loud, lit-up-in-neon mistakes are a recurring theme so far. We’re a month into the season, and United has given up 6 goals based on capital-M Mistakes, and that rate is actually going up. They did it twice against Columbus, and twice against Houston. They gave away a win on opening day that would have made the last three game far easier to take when Ulises Segura simply opted not to track Jonathan Spector. Atlanta was kicking United’s ass up and down the field, but they only got the actual game-winner when Junior Moreno abandoned his post, leaving a giant pocket for the best player on the field to do what elite players do.
On top of this, United gave away a set piece goal for the second time this season, and they’re very lucky it was only one. Columbus hit the bar on another, forced Frederic Brillant into a spot where he also hit the bar defending a Crew corner, and saw Gyasi Zardes miss an open header at the back post. United is actually even on set piece goals for and against this season, but without a marked improvement in that department, they’re on course to give up far more goals from dead balls than they score.
Again this is self-destruction, and in this case it’s on the coaching staff. It’s been years since United’s set piece defending was among the best in MLS, and given that the attacking talent is not elite, every goal given up matters. United does not have a Golden Boot goalscorer in their ranks to turn random half-chances into goals often enough to make up for being so vulnerable on corner kicks.
The fact that the players have changed but the outcomes are the same means that everyone involved in game-planning for United needs to do better. It’s not like the teams being put on the field are full of small, soft players who simply can’t compete physically. United is being out-gunned in terms of set piece prep, and if anything good comes out of the upcoming bye week created by rescheduling to help Toronto FC’s CCL hopes, it needs to be a team that has stopped being such an easy mark on every corner kick.
Of course, it’s not just avoidable goals given away that’s making this such an aggravating season. At the other end, United is leaving goals on the table. We’ve discussed Mattocks before, and this week his heavy first touch turned what should have been the goal that rewarded United for their bold start to the match into a deflating missed chance (technically not even a shot attempt).
It might not be as costly as a defensive mistake, but United has played with one lead all season, despite carving out some big chances early in games. It hasn’t destroyed morale yet, but the combination of missing chances like this and then giving up goals like Valenzuela’s (or Orlando’s late equalizer) will eventually sap even the strongest group of their resolve.
It’s worth noting that Ben Olsen’s playoff teams have all involved at least decent starts to the season in terms of getting results, and every season that went terribly started with a lack of wins. By and large, the Olsen Era has only had one dramatic late-season uptick in form (2016), and that season still saw United post 2 blowout wins and 3 road draws en route to a 2W-4D-3L record at the end of April. MLS teams “flip the switch” just about every year, but to do that you have to maintain a conviction that they can be a good team.
This year’s schedule is weird enough that it’s hard to put too much weight on past results as an indicator of where this team is going in 2018, but it is awfully hard for a team to maintain a belief in themselves when they keep doing themselves in. Nothing hurts a team’s collective strength more than repeatedly shooting themselves in the foot. D.C. United has been the author of its own demise this season, and if they don’t become harder to beat, it won’t matter how many home games they have at the end to dig themselves out.