It took me longer than I wanted to get this done, and some of this might be related to D.C. United’s 1-1 draw with Houston on Sunday, some might expand into analysis of the season itself. Lots of observations, go:
1. Take the subjectivity and emotion out of it. D.C. United, decimated by injuries and suspensions, faced a two-goal deficit at home in the second leg of the Eastern Conference finals against a savvy, experienced Houston side that was in MLS Cup last year. D.C. United was in the playoffs for the first time in 2007.
Again, no emotion.
That’s an impossibly steep hill to climb, and a 1-1 draw sounds about right? Right. That’s what occurred, despite the tangible effect that a stirring crowd had on RFK Stadium and a D.C. United team that had been playing against a stacked deck since September.
But luck was due to run out, particularly with the absence of a reliable target forward to put the ball in the net. It didn’t help that Lewis Neal was limited so much that he couldn’t start, which forced United coach Ben Olsen to go with two forwards instead of one. Olsen said he would’ve preferred the lineup that he had on Sunday morning – a tacit admission that the Lionard Pajoy/Maicon Santos pairing wasn’t going to work.
The point is, D.C. United’s odds were far too long to get a result. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t possible – the fact that so many people showed up at RFK anyway was a testament to the belief in their ability. It also makes it easier for D.C. United to walk away from the end of the 2012 season with their heads held high despite being ousted from the playoffs. That’s rare in sports.
2. Now, onward to the forward problem. Olsen leaned on Pajoy all fall to hold the ball and help D.C. United keep possession. That’s Pajoy’s specialty. But there’s a reason that D.C. United scored only one goal in every game it played down the stretch without Dwayne De Rosario except two. Pajoy’s finishing, and for that matter, his ability to simply get a decent shot off, left far too much to be desired. His partnership with Santos, when they’ve played together, was even worse, so much so that there was little reason to think they’d succeed together against Houston. But D.C. United wasn’t relying solely on logic to get a result anyway.
That leaves Hamdi Salihi, who was dangerous but unsuccessful in the second half against the Dynamo. That’s why he hasn’t played all season? That’s simply not fair. Over the final portion of the year played without De Rosario, Pajoy contributed two goals and Salihi had one. Santos had zero. This is going to be related to Branko Boskovic, but blame doesn’t fall solely on Salihi and his designated player salary. Like Boskovic, Salihi was never really given a chance to succeed – he made 10 starts all year – and for that matter he wasn’t even given minutes down the stretch. If there’s failure, it’s equally on D.C. United for signing him in the first place if he was that bad of a fit. At that price, a team has to be able to trust a player enough to work through an adjustment period. This season, Salihi has been no worse than any of United’s other No. 9′s.
3. With struggles at the No. 9 position, goal scoring was simply too big a task to handle on Sunday. There’s no single player to blame. D.C. United always seemed to be one touch away from a clean shot. It says a lot that the best effort on a goal was a magnificent strike from distance by Chris Korb just 10 minutes into the contest. Playing without De Rosario is one thing. Playing without De Rosario and Chris Pontius is another. Certainly the question becomes for next year, what formation does Olsen use? One forward? Two? De Rosario withdrawn, or not? Certainly some of those decisions are likely to depend on what happens this offseason. With the new ownership partners, it would seem logical that there could be more funds available to bring in big-named talent.
4. Olsen said Boskovic’s performance against the Dynamo was his best of the season. It needed to be with the team so offensively starved. Boskovic also played 90 minutes for the second and third time this season in the Houston series – in back-to-back games for the first time all year. But Olsen’s compliment came with the caveat that he didn’t know what was going on with Boskovic next year. Um, he’s supposed to be under contract thanks to the new deal he signed over the summer. That might not matter. His value and contributions will continue to be debated, and the simple fact is the fit between Olsen and Boskovic has always been an uneasy one. It won’t be surprising if the club decides to go in another direction. In the end, that could at least spare the club the embarrassment of another deadline crisis like the one they faced this year while waffling over whether to keep Boskovic or not.
5. With all the debate over Boskovic, what should D.C. United do at center back, where there are three guys earning more than $200,000 each? All of them seem slightly overpaid, but it may be a case where United has just enough to be more settled than concerned. Dejan Jakovic probably had his best season, especially considering his durability over the final stretch, and Brandon McDonald was solid even there’s a feeling that the team can do better. Emiliano Dudar is a step behind those two, but playing him over the injured McDonald was not a crucial loss in the second leg against Houston.
6. United was good enough to win with how the outside backs played against Houston. After starting the year as a huge concern, all of a sudden it’s one of the team’s deepest positions. Andy Najar was a revelation at right back this year, and his absence from the Houston series – not to mention the second leg in New York – was far bigger than the no-call red card that should’ve been earned by Andre Hainault in the first leg. But if there’s a most improved award for D.C. United, it might have to go to Chris Korb, who had his best game of the year against the Dynamo on Sunday. Despite his preference for shin guards that would only be appropriate for a three-year-old, the second-year defender from Akron transformed from a warm body into a rugged, fearless and daring player capable of delivering assists and ruffling the feathers of talented opposition attackers. Daniel Woolard also had a breakout season before his concussion in late summer, and Robbie Russell is also solid and reliable – and should’ve scored on Sunday. He’s getting a D.C. United crest tattoo on his right side to go with the other ones he’s already got from his former clubs, it’s just a matter of when.
7. Korb is just one piece of a very solid young core. Add in Najar, Bill Hamid, Nick DeLeon (who is up for rookie of the year today), Perry Kitchen, also an unsung hero, as well as Joe Willis and even Lance Rozeboom, who might’ve been a surprise contributor if not for his knee injury in preseason. All of these players – alongside veteran role players like Neal and Marcelo Saragosa – provided a very complementary presence to the star power provided by De Rosario and Pontius. There’s also something to be said for this group being a year early for the playoff run they just completed. Playoff experience is invaluable, and D.C. United as a group essentially didn’t have any at all when the postseason began thanks to a roster that had been gutted and turned over since 2007. Now they do.
8. The indiscretions of youth have been hard on D.C. United. As was already said, Najar’s suspension may have altered the playoffs more than anything else in the past two weeks. Hamid’s red card ultimately didn’t cost D.C. United, but it was also a hard lesson to learn. Hamid and Najar have great potential. But realizing it requires growth from these tough times.
9. Olsen’s coaching job will be universally lauded, but that doesn’t mean it was perfect. He’s made great strides as a coach, and he’s always been very honest that it hasn’t been easy to learn the position and to make hard decisions that in many cases have affected his personal relationships. But he pushed all the right buttons down the stretch. He turned D.C. United into a disciplined, predictable team (in a good way) that played the way it wanted to, possessed the ball and dictated matches. That’s a dramatic improvement from past seasons, and it got better over the course of the season, even with De Rosario out. But Boskovic and Salihi haven’t been handled smoothly. Neither was how Hamid and Najar were welcomed back from Olympic qualifying. The forward situation was also messy, with Pajoy providing a necessary service that may have come at the expense of goals – particularly in the second leg against Houston when D.C. so desperately needed them. In a way, coaching without De Rosario may have helped United because players will better understand their roles when he comes back fully next season.
Certainly, much of Olsen’s challenge next season will hinge on what players he has and how the roster changes. He’s proven that he can get the most out of a mostly blue-collar group that is prepared to grind, scrap and fight. The next task is to find the same level of consistency when he has to integrate higher-priced attacking talent that he’s less comfortable managing.
10. Lastly, D.C. United is back. The passion for the club was rekindled in Washington this fall, and it’s proof that the best atmosphere in Major League Soccer – which currently is somewhere in the Northwest – has a very good chance of eventually being in Southwest Washington, where D.C. United hopes to start building a new stadium as soon as next year. Seeds of doubt and irrelevance that had crept into United’s existence over the past five years are gone. Credit goes to Olsen, the players themselves and to the infusion of optimism that has come with new investors who are serious, positive and have the means to make change happen. On and off the field, there’s a chance that D.C. United, after a pretty remarkable season, will get even better this winter. And a powerful, proud and competitive D.C. United in the current MLS landscape might just be more impressive than the one that helped lift the league in its early years.