I returned from a trip Sunday night to a DVR full of soccer (and shows about people making cake . . . yes, I’m married). After my wife and I burned through the cake-battle portions of the DVR (spoiler alert: they were able to repair the fondant), I started a three-hour D.C. United marathon that would tell me a lot about whether or not the team will make the playoffs. The playlist was United at Philadelphia followed by Chivas USA at United. Philly and Chivas are both bad teams. If United is going to make the playoffs, it has to beat teams like Philly and Chivas. It’s like they always say: When you’re in a cake competition, get your fondant rolled out first, then worry about your chocolate detail work and blown-sugar elements, and don’t forget to factor in the effect that studio lights will have on your gum-paste figurines. That might not be the most useful metaphor in the world but it’s the only one I’m able to summon right now.
First up: United at Philadelphia (actually at Chester, Pa., Versailles to Philly’s Paris). United’s lineup: Hamid | Korb, Jakovic, McDonald, Najar | Pontius, Neal, Kitchen, DeLeon, Boskovic | Pajoy. When I first saw this lineup, I figured that Neal would be on the left, Boskovic would be at the top of the diamond and Pontius would be a striker. But it soon became obvious: Neal was in the middle, Pontius was on the left and Boskovic was just sort of an advanced midfielder. It didn’t work. Actually, to say it didn’t work is a massive understatement. “The Chevy Chase Show” didn’t work. The League of Nations didn’t work. United’s Pajoy-as-the-only-striker lineup produced soccer that was harder to watch than a lunar eclipse.
Philadelphia definitely contributed to the awfulness. The Union has some good young players: Jack McInerney, Sheanon Williams and Amobi Okugo, to name three. Also Freddy Adu, whom you’d think is probably 30 or 31 by now, but he’s actually 23. But while Philly might be good one day, it’s definitely not good now, as it demonstrated through 90 minutes of sloppy passing and shanked shots. You can tell what a barn-burner this match was by looking at the halftime stats: Shots: Philly 2, D.C. 3. Shots on goal: Philly 0, D.C. 1 (and that one was a free kick). Corners: Philly 1, D.C. 0.
Things got a little better when United shifted its formation, putting Pontius up top. And things got a lot better when Santos entered the match (in this case “a lot better” worked out to “still pretty bad”). In the end, a nice play by Santos, Pontius and Pajoy plus some gritty-if-not-crisp defending got us a 1-0 win. Just like the other time United played in Philly this year, United stunk it up but still won, 1-0. What total jerks United is: It comes into their stadium, plays an unwatchable 90 minutes of soccer, snags a goal and skips town with all three points. Well, Philly: Consider that payback for Donovan McNabb.
Hamid: 3.5. A play in the second half (that was offside anyway, so it didn’t matter) demonstrated the trickiness of doing these ratings: Hamid spilled a shot, then did well to smother the follow-up. So: Do I give Hamid credit for making the second save, even though it should never have happened? When making these decisions, I tend to assume an ontological perspective placed within a Kantian framework, and that combined with John Rawls’s Original Position puts me in a great position to pull a number out of my backside.
Korb: 5.5. United didn’t hold the ball long enough for him to get forward, which takes away his main asset.
Jakovic: 6. It’s easy to not notice when a center back is in a good run of form, but Jakovic is in a good run of form.
McDonald: 5. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: His defense was good but he resorted to long balls too quickly.
Najar: 4.5. We saw the downside of the “Najar at right back” experiment: He can be exposed as a defender.
Pontius: 6.5. Thanks for bailing out United! In the last two matches, he’s basically turned two chances into two goals and two 1-0 wins.
Kitchen: 3.5. He didn’t recognize the game well enough. With Neal sitting beside him, he needed to get into the attack more.
Neal: 4. He seems to play well exactly every other match. This was his off night.
DeLeon: 4.5. It was an aggressive match and Philly closed down space will, which pretty much shut down DeLeon.
Boskovic: 4.5. I don’t know what position he was playing to start the match and I’m not sure he did, either.
Pajoy: 4.5. He was so stranded that someone should have given him a volleyball with a handprint on it to keep him company.
Santos: 6.5. He changed the match. United lost De Ro, but getting Santos back is a boost.
* * *
After the Philly match, I wasn’t sure if I could stomach another one right away. I thought maybe I should take a break, maybe throw back a few Black Russians. Then again, rationalizing drinking is a hallmark of alcoholism. But maybe people who say that should watch the tape of that Philly match and then look me in the eye and say they don’t want a drink because that was bloody awful.
I decided to watch the Chivas match and have the Black Russians, and both proved to be the right decision. This time, United’s play was as smooth and pleasant as Vodka and Kahlua over ice. This time, Santos started instead of Boskovic and Saragosa replaced Neal; otherwise, the starting lineup was the same. For some reason — perhaps because Chivas is horrendous, while Philly is merely crappy — United really clicked. It had all the good chances; I don’t think Chivas possessed the ball in its penalty box in the first 30 minutes. Here: highlight Najar and Korb on MLS Chalkboard — they were in Chivas’s half so much they could have established residency. United dominated this match.
But D.C. couldn’t get a goal. At one point I was thinking about what a weird, often unfair sport soccer is; nobody dominates a basketball game and ends up tied. Soccer and figure skating are the only sports where coaches regularly say, “I don’t think that was a fair result.” And I thought United might be headed that way until Boskovic sent a diving header into the net. As you probably know, Boskovic and Ben had been having a gentleman’s disagreement (which is an argument while wearing top hats and spats) about Boskovic’s playing time. When Ben took Boskovic out against Philly, it seemed like the right move. And when Ben put Boskovic in against Chivas, that also seemed like the right move. So I don’t know what this means for Ben, Boskovic, Ben’s starting lineups, Ben’s substitution patterns or any of that, except for this: If United makes the playoffs, then both Ben and Boskovic end up looking good. And after getting nine points from our last three games, you have to like where D.C. is sitting: just below New York, above Houston. As in geography, also in the standings.
Hamid: 7. He barely had any work, but I’m giving him a point for good distribution.
Korb: 7. I’m not sure if United’s attack was better because the fullbacks were involved or if the fullbacks were involved because United’s attack was better. But Korb and Najar were forward a lot.
Jakovic: 7.5. Good defending — including a crucial block on Chivas’s only real chance of the match — and he moved the ball very well.
McDonald: 5.5. I should probably be boosting his score a bit because of the leadership he provides at the back, but it’s hard to quantify “Najar standing in the right place because of something McDonald yelled.”
Najar: 7.5. He was basically a fifth midfielder, and Chivas was so toothless it didn’t matter.
Pontius: 6. He was slightly off his game, but it came while the rest of the team was playing well.
Kitchen: 7.5. After a poor match on Thursday, he added a lot to the attack. Again: we should probably attribute some of this to Chivas being terrible.
Saragosa: 6. Ben uses Saragosa like a 4-year-old uses a toy: He uses him a lot for a while, then kind of forgets about him, then rediscovers him and is delighted that he’s there.
DeLeon: 4.5. He’s fading, and I wonder if he’s getting tired. The college soccer season is about half as long as an MLS season.
Pajoy: 6. When Santos is in the match, Pajoy doesn’t draw the big defenders.
Santos: 6. Santos make McDonald better because he sometimes turns those long balls into possession.
Boskovic: 6.5. None of us know what to make of him; he’s the obvious choice to fill in for De Ro, but he doesn’t always look like he’s up to the job. But that was a top-drawer finish on that header.
Neal: 5. Ben seems to like him as a defensive option.