D.C. United Begins Playoff Push With a 1-0 Victory Over Kansas City Wizards
Thursday, September 10, 2009
D.C. United's playoff fortunes will be clarified over the next six weeks at RFK Stadium, a reliably friendly setting where the club has yet to lose an MLS regular season match but has also settled for several maddening ties.
The first step in United's march to the postseason began Wednesday night with a 1-0 victory over the Kansas City Wizards before a sparse home gathering.
Luciano Emilio's goal late in the first half lifted D.C. (8-5-12, 36 points) into third place in MLS's Eastern Conference and within three points of first-place Columbus (10-4-9). However, United has played more games than almost all other contenders and will need to continue winning during this stretch of five consecutive home matches to avoid missing the playoffs for the second straight year.
Josh Wicks was solid in net and United benefited from the Wizards' wayward shooting in improving to 6-0-5 with five shutouts in league play at RFK. Davy Arnaud was the culprit, misusing several quality opportunities for the Wizards (6-11-6), who were left short-handed by reserve Chance Myers's late ejection for a second yellow card in five minutes.
"Sometimes you have to grind out results, and it was a grind today," United Coach Tom Soehn said. "It's not always going to be pretty, and getting results when it's not pretty, that's the times that you need it. We know how crucial these points were for us."
The announced attendance was 8,033, a generous figure that was about half the club's season average and by far the smallest tally for a league match at RFK this season. (The previous low was 11,226 for New York's visit in June.)
Weeknight games rarely draw well to begin with, but United didn't help the cause by rescheduling this one for the same day as World Cup qualifying and at the same time as the televised game between the United States and Trinidad and Tobago. Kansas City was supposed to play here on a Saturday night in August, but United's Real Madrid friendly at FedEx Field forced the change.
Entire sections in RFK's lower bowl were unoccupied and, when the Barra Brava supporters weren't at their loudest, players' shouts reached the mezzanine level. The club is, however, expecting around 20,000 for Saturday's match against Seattle (8-6-10).
Despite the uninspiring backdrop, both clubs were lively and threatening in the first half. Seventy seconds into the match, Arnaud faltered on a one-timer. United responded with Jaime Moreno's header off the crossbar and Christian Gómez's gorgeous offering to Rodney Wallace, whose angled attempt was blocked by goalkeeper Kevin Hartman.
United was fortunate not to fall behind during a pair of uneasy sequences in the 35th and 36th minutes. Bryan Namoff deflected Herculez Gomez's 25-yard blast that might've found the left side of the net, resulting in a corner kick that led to Santiago Hirsig hitting the crossbar from close range and Wicks blocking Josh Wolff's quick touch.
A similarly unsettled event unfolded a few minutes later, only this time, United finished the opportunity. Off a short corner kick, Namoff nodded the ball into the six-yard box and Chris Pontius's diving header struck the left post. With Hartman out of the play, Emilio swept the rebound into an open net for his first league goal since Aug. 1 and ninth in league competition.
Arnaud should've tied the match before halftime, but unaccompanied from six yards, he missed badly.
"It took us a long time to get settled into the game and we got very lucky in the first half to not be down a couple or three goals," said Devon McTavish, who started in central defense with newcomer Julius James and helped United earn its third shutout in the past four league matches. The club was without injured starting defenders Dejan Jakovic and Marc Burch.
Despite the lead, Soehn needed more bite in the midfield and replaced Gómez with Ben Olsen at the start of the second half.
"The game dictated that we needed to get Benny in there," Soehn said. "I told [Gómez] at halftime: 'It's not you, it's the way our formation is right now, we need to solidify things.' Benny added a lot the minute he came in. He shored the middle up and we started to possess the ball a little bit better."
Nonetheless, United continued to yield chances. Arnaud took advantage of McTavish's misplay and sent a clear bid from 15 yards terribly off target. After Myers's ejection, Emilio's bid for another goal was denied by defender Jimmy Conrad, who cleared the lofted shot off the goal line in the 89th minute.
"We're still sloppy offensively, for sure, and we were a little frustrated with that," said Clyde Simms, who started in his natural defensive midfield slot and finished on the back line, where he played last weekend. "It's not going to be pretty every game, we know that. If we are good defensively and we're battling, we give ourselves the best chance to win."