An MLS season’s long grind reveals truths about a team. In D.C. United’s case, it is this: Success down the stretch and into the playoffs hinges on Fabian Espindola’s availability and impact.
The latest setback cost him four games. In that block, United claimed only three points, scored twice and created few scoring opportunities.
Ben Olsen’s gang has gotten by without the Argentine forward this year, mixing grit, resilience and timely contributions from others. But as summer wanes and autumn anxiety descends, Espindola’s importance to United’s championship quest is magnified.
“The time I have been playing is not enough,” he said this week. “It should be good for now on.”
Inactive since a 6-4 free-for-all victory against Real Salt Lake on Aug. 1, Espindola is expected to contribute in some capacity Saturday night against the Colorado Rapids in suburban Denver.
His return could not come soon enough. United (13-10-5) has dropped three in a row – its longest regular season losing streak in two years – and watched a comfortable Eastern Conference lead evaporate with six weeks left.
During Espindola’s absence, United’s attack has been toothless. The lack of menace and possession has had a ripple effect: additional burden on an overworked defense.
“We always want to find a way,” captain Bobby Boswell said, “and Fabi makes it easier to find a way.”
Soccer is not a statistical-oriented sport, but numbers do explain Espindola’s value. Last year, despite missing a large chunk with a knee injury, he was the team MVP with 11 goals and nine assists during the first-place campaign.
This year, with him on the field (nine as a starter, two as a substitute), United has scored 20 goals and posted a 7-3-1 record. Without him, the club is 6-7-4 with 15 goals. In the past 11 matches he’s missed, United has posted nine goals.
Espindola was just beginning to rekindle a prosperous partnership with Alvaro Saborio, a former Real Salt Lake teammate acquired by United this summer, when he sprained his left knee. He was slated to return two weeks ago against the New York Red Bulls, but lingering discomfort prompted Olsen to leave him behind.
The extra time-off has allowed him to fully recover and further regain fitness.
“He looked like himself,” Olsen said. “He looks sharp.”
Espindola has posted three goals and five assists, tied for the team lead with Taylor Kemp.
Beyond production and impact, Espindola offers intangibles that United has been lacking of late.
“It’s good to have him back, not only for his talent, but his spirit out there is one that is contagious to the guys around him,” Olsen said of the fiery forward.
United will need added punch against a Colorado team that, despite an 8-10-9 record and ninth-place standing in the Western Conference, has conceded the second-fewest goals in the 20-team league (29) and will welcome two defenders back from yellow-card suspensions.
United is aiming to rediscover its mojo after a 13-day gap between games. With the long season taking a physical and mental toll, the club welcomed the break. United is the only team in the league entered in four competitions this year: 2014-15 CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals, regular season, U.S. Open Cup and 2015-16 Champions League group stage.
International play will resume Tuesday at RFK Stadium against Panama’s Arabe Unido.
“These guys have put in a lot of work this year,” Olsen said. “At the end of a hot summer in D.C., it all adds up to sometimes needing a few days away from each other.”
Olsen conducted regular training sessions last week, then granted three days off before resuming workouts Tuesday.
“It’s good to have the break, but also there is a bad taste, at least in my mouth,” he said. “It will be good to get a game again. We got a lot of feeling-sorry-for-ourselves and negative energy out and I think we’re ready to turn the page.”
The time-off, Olsen added, also allowed United to get “back to some of the basic, simple principles that make us successful. Coaches and players need reminders. The one thing we always needed to hang our hat on was our drive and competitiveness. If that turns down a little bit, we’re not going to set ourselves up to succeed.”
While Espindola is expected to return, midfielder Davy Arnaud (21 league starts) will miss a second consecutive game with a concussion. He has not been cleared to practice. Olsen declined to say how the injury occurred.
In Arnaud’s absence, Markus Halsti and Michael Farfan are the top options to fill the central role. Halsti returned to practice Thursday after a 10-day adventure: starting assignments for the Finnish national team in Euro 2016 qualifiers against Greece in Athens and the Faroe Islands in Helsinki. He declared himself rested and fit for MLS duty.
Most of the others, particularly Espindola, said the same.
“It’s good for us,” Espindola said of the break. “We can show we are ready to play again and get some points.”
D.C. United at Colorado Rapids
Where: DSG Park in Commerce City, Colo.
When: Saturday at 9 p.m. ET.
TV: Comcast SportsNet.
Records: United 13-10-5, 44 points; Rapids 8-10-9, 33 points.
D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; Ds Sean Franklin, Bobby Boswell, Steve Birnbaum, Taylor Kemp; MFs Nick DeLeon, Perry Kitchen, Michael Farfan, Chris Pontius; Fs Chris Rolfe, Alvaro Saborio.
Colorado probable starters: GK Clint Irwin; Ds Drew Moor, Sean St. Ledger, Bobby Burling, Maynor Figueroa; MFs Vicente Sanchez, Lucas Pittinari, Sam Cronin, Dillon Powers, Gabriel Torres; F Kevin Doyle.