In Sunday’s 2-0 win over the arch-rival New York Red Bulls, D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen answered one of the major questions facing his club, and in doing so, may have also cemented the club’s status as a championship contender in Major League Soccer for the 2014 season.
The question, of course, was how to use forward and designated player Eddie Johnson, while not messing with a combination that has been lethal of late. That combo, featuring Luis Silva, Chris Rolfe, and Fabian Espindola, helped lead United to seven goals in two wins when Johnson was serving a suspension for matches against Colorado (4-2) and Sporting Kansas City (3-0).
Espindola and Rolfe took to the bench for a game at Los Angeles last Wednesday, while Johnson played in front of Silva in the attack and, for reasons more than just that, D.C. couldn’t get any of the ball early, fell behind 3-0 and eventually lost 4-1. This despite Espindola and fellow midfielder Nick DeLeon, also a usual starter, entering as substitutes in the second half.
There had to be a happy medium somewhere. On Sunday, Olsen found it. He had the band back together in midfield with DeLeon, Rolfe, Davy Arnaud and the not-to-be-forgotten Perry Kitchen, who is more and more involved in the offense now despite his defensive midfielder positioning. Espindola and Silva teamed up front and after a scoreless first half, Silva pounced on a New York mistake in the Red Bulls’ third and put United ahead in the 57th minute. Espindola and United goalkeeper Bill Hamid drew assists.
Whatever unhappiness Johnson would have had about not starting was hopefully put aside later when he delivered the knockout blow to New York moments into second-half stoppage time. Having entered the game to replace Silva, it was now Johnson’s job to do some running up front and give United an outlet in possession while trying to keep New York away from an equalizer.
In the 91st minute, Johnson took advantage of New York’s rigid high line for an offside trap, moving from near the left attacking flank toward the middle with a curving run that caught the Red Bulls flat-footed. Johnson met the long ball played ahead by Kitchen, got a wayward first touch under control and then chipped the ball over New York goalkeeper Luis Robles to make it 2-0 and put three valuable points (and the Atlantic Cup) under lock and key for United.
The play was something that United fans have wanted to see more of from Johnson, who notched his fifth goal of the season after a very slow start. But it’s also the type of run Johnson has been making at times, only to not be rewarded, get the ball sent to him in an area where he couldn’t be dangerous, or on occasion Johnson was double- or triple-teamed and got no help. A full 90 minutes of that can be very frustrating to watch, just as it can be for Johnson to play through, as we have seen from some of his reactions this season.
Certainly, Johnson isn’t going to want to come off the bench consistently. But Olsen can’t break up the combination of Rolfe-Silva-Espindola, with Arnaud, DeLeon, and Kitchen providing the support. They are just too good. For whatever reason, with Johnson in for the full 90, it hasn’t always worked. But with him playing the final 25 to 30 minutes, with fresh legs, making the kind of runs he made to score his goal Sunday? That will work.
Sunday wasn’t perfect. New York had the better of possession (54.9 percent) and took 18 shots, but only five of those were on target. United were more effective with their chances and got the desired result (nine total shots; five on goal; two goals). Olsen won’t always have first choice of lineups due to injuries, suspensions, and what not. And on many occasions, the opponent will be better than a bungling New York side that for all its recognizable talent, has won just seven of 25 league matches this season.
For this season anyway, if Olsen can convince Johnson that this is the best way to go for a while, and the starters continue to shine when grouped together, a four-point lead in the Eastern Conference and success that seemed a million miles way during a horrid 2013 hopefully will be enough to keep everyone content for now.
NOTES: No United players found themselves stepping into deeper trouble with regard to yellow card accumulations. The match Sunday featured no cards at all shown by referee Jair Marrufo. … United have won both matches now vs. New York this season (both at RFK) by a combined score of 3-0. The teams meet just once more, at Red Bull Arena on Wednesday, Sept. 10, meaning United have already clinched the Atlantic Cup for the season. … United is at Vancouver Saturday (10 p.m., CSN), marking the club’s final match vs. a Western Conference opponent in 2014. D.C. is 4-4 so far against the West. … With two wins in its last eight MLS matches, United would have as many wins this season (16) as it had points last year. … The shutout was Hamid’s seventh of the season and lowered his goals against average to 1.23. The assist on Silva’s goal was Hamid’s first of the year.
Ed Morgans is the D.C. United Page Editor for District Sports Page. He covered United for The Journal Newspapers from 1997-2002 and has attended matches since 1996. For in-game analysis and story notifications, follow him on Twitter @writered21.