After advancing within a step of MLS Cup last fall, D.C. United is off to the worst start in the club’s 18-season history. At 1-8-1 and four points, United has lost a team-record seven consecutive matches and scored just five goals while conceding 19 and suffered six shutouts.
Here are some of the reasons why United has fallen to the depths of the league:
1. Last season’s late run to the third-best record in MLS and a berth in the Eastern Conference finals created a false sense of standing. Dwayne De Rosario’s injury galvanized the squad and Ben Olsen’s blue-collar ethos and no-one-believes-in-us mantra took hold. It was a good team, but not a great team, one that overachieved down the stretch. The club played with heart and courage, ground out results, gladly accepted some favorable bounces and attended to all the little details in winning a string of one-goal games. But had United returned to elite league status? No. Management figured — wrongly – the cash-conscious club could contend for a championship without opening the checkbook for another impact player.
2. The forwards not only don’t score frequently, they don’t scare anyone. Lionard Pajoy does the dirty work, as Olsen likes to say. He applies pressure, gets back to defend, holds the ball and fights for 50-50 challenges. Which is great – if you’re a defensive midfielder. Lack of production cost him his starting job last week, but not after playing all but 26 minutes in the first quarter of this calamitous season. Over the winter United dumped Maicon Santos and high-priced Hamdi Salihi, who teamed for 13 goals in 26 combined starts. They weren’t reliable but did offer presence in the box and an occasional finishing touch. The replacements, Rafael and Carlos Ruiz, have not filled the void. Club officials oversold Rafael’s arrival, teasing his acquisition a day earlier by saying they were going to make a “major announcement.” He is a 20-year-old loaner who no one had ever heard of here. Thierry Henry is a “major announcement.” Rafael is not a “major announcement.” He is a young player who needs time, not high expectations. Signing Ruiz, who is well past his prime,
wreaked reeked of desperation. He has made six appearances for 99 minutes with no goals. Over the weekend, United left Ruiz at home and turned to second-year forward Casey Townsend, who was on loan with third-division Richmond. He, at least, hit the post.
3. The stars have not shined. De Rosario began the campaign by serving a two-game suspension for a head-butting incident in the preseason finale and was slow to reincorporate himself into the lineup. He is also turning 35 this week and coming off a knee injury last fall. While he remains an athletic wonder and one capable of changing the course of a match, he would probably be better served at this point in his career as a complementary player, not the centerpiece. Chris Pontius seemed poised to fill that role but required additional time to recover from last fall’s hamstring injury and failed to replicate the MLS Best XI selection he so richly deserved last year. And then he got hurt.
4. United doesn’t have a hub – there is no conductor, orchestrator, playmaker, no one to keep possession. De Rosario probably doesn’t have the legs to do the job and is best-served as a withdrawn forward. Pontius and Nick DeLeon play wide. Perry Kitchen has field-general qualities but plays deep in midfield and lacks the pure technical ability and distribution to put opponents under consistent duress. Branko Boskovic looked the part – and was effective at times — but wasn’t the same since ACL surgery in early 2011. Family issues beckoned him back to Europe over the winter.
5. Central defense was the least of Olsen’s concerns entering the season, and for good reason. Dejan Jakovic and Brandon McDonald were seasoned veterans who had stood tall down the stretch last year, anchoring a unit that conceded one or no goals in 10 of the last 12 matches. They picked up where they left off this year, but in consecutive blowouts against Columbus and Houston, each suffered a terrible breakdown resulting in a slew of goals. They’ll be fine in the long run, but on those frequent days when the offense is sputtering, there is no room for error by two of the league’s highest-paid defenders.
6. United did the right thing by selling Andy Najar, whose international stock and transfer fee were rising. He wanted to go and it was time. But, boy, does D.C. miss him. Najar’s swift and unpredictable runs from right back in the second half of 2012 added a special dimension to the attack. The club recognized the impossibility of replacing those unique qualities and turned to a traditional replacement (Chris Korb). Many fans wonder what happened to the $2 million-plus received from Anderlecht for Najar. First, the payments are made in installments, not all at once, so United was not in position to make an immediate purchase. (United will also receive sell-on payments, if Najar is transferred again.) Second, the money was put toward managing the salary cap.
7. United has conceded 10 goals in the first 30 minutes of matches – and nine of those have come in the past five games. To some extent, that falls on Olsen, who, aside from setting the lineup and tactics, is responsible for instilling focus and energy in the days and hours before kickoff. Olsen embodied those traits as a player; that many of his players are lacking in those areas is disconcerting. United has also given up six goals in the last 15 minutes of matches, with three of them turning ties on the road into losses (Houston, Kansas City and Dallas).
8. Bill Hamid has been magnificent at times, too often having to keep United in matches. At New York in the third week, he secured an undeserved point with several breathtaking saves. But at age 22, he is going to make mistakes. Every young keeper does. After all, goalies peak later in their careers than field players. His back-up, Joe Willis, has a big upside but is just 24. Hamid had started every match until Saturday. So who is the top choice now? And if he remains on the bench, how will the emotional Hamid handle it?
9. Every club confronts a glut of injuries at some stage in the long season. United was hit early in the year and at the same position: midfield. DeLeon, John Thorrington and Lewis Neal went down for the long term – just as De Rosario was returning from suspension. Then DeRo got hurt and Pontius was shelved. DeLeon’s 6 ½-week absence left the club without a dynamic attacker. Neither Thorrington nor Neal is a full-time starter, and United knew the oft-injured Thorrington would need periodic breaks. But both are smart, experienced players who can lead and distribute.
10. When things are going bad, it all goes bad. That includes the calls against you. Kyle Porter’s go-ahead goal in the fourth game of the season was incorrectly nullified – a mistake acknowledged days later by the referees’ association. (United lost to Columbus, 2-1.) A month later at Columbus, a mysterious foul call voided Kitchen’s first-half equalizer. (United ended up losing 3-0 and didn’t deserve any points, but the decision altered the direction of the match.) Trailing Houston by two goals last week, De Rosario’s second consecutive stab that was cleared off the line by Kofi Sarkodie appeared to cross the threshold. Play continued. (United was desperate and probably would not have completed the comeback, but again, such rulings carry major ramifications.)
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