February 28, 2021

D.C. United GAME 4 ANALYSIS: Home loss ends streak, raises questions

“It’s OK, it was a road game. They’ll be fine.”

This thought probably went through some people’s heads after D.C. United lost to the Houston Dynamo, 2-0, in the season opener. After all, it’s tough for most teams to win away form home in Major League Soccer (MLS), the Dynamo don’t lose at home, and no one is right to panic after one blemish on a 34-game slate.

The point was perhaps proven when United returned to Washington for its home opener and beat Real Salt Lake, 1-0. And while the offense was rather mute again in the 0-0 draw at the New York Red Bulls, much of the attention was rightly focused on goalkeeper Bill Hamid’s excellent performance that earned United a tough away point against its arch-rival (the teams meet again in April at RFK Stadium).

“1-1-1 isn’t so bad – two of the three matches were away. They’ll be fine.”

Such could have been the mindset prior to Saturday’s home match against the Columbus Crew, a team that entered the match with the same record as United, and surely it would be tough for them to play on the road, right? After all, United hadn’t lost a league home match in 19 games, going back to the 2012 home opener. Fortress RFK, and all that.

Of course, nothing went to plan Saturday. United gave up two goals, had one disallowed, still didn’t show a consistent attack dangerous enough to produce a significant number of scoring opportunities, and lost to the Crew, 2-1, at RFK. United hadn’t lost at home in the league since a second-half stoppage time goal lifted Sporting Kansas City to a 1-0 win on March 10, 2012.

“1-2-1 – They’re doomed!”

OK, not quite. There’s no reason to send out distress signals four games into the campaign. The club certainly would have expected better than 1-2-1 at this point, and that’s fair. Despite being tied for seventh of 10 teams in the Eastern Conference in standings points per game (4 from 4, 1.00, tied with Toronto FC), there’s plenty of time to make up ground there. But it has to be a bit worrisome that given their hot start, the Montreal Impact (4-0-0, 12 points), have already left United eight points in the dust in the conference. In fact, the Impact are five points clear of second-place Columbus (2-1-1, 7 points).

It’s not where United is right now in the standings that is as troubling as how they got here. United are tied with Sporting Kansas City and Chivas USA for 12th in the league in shots on goal with just 13 (3.25 per game). However, both those teams have been far more successful cashing in their opportunities than has United. Chivas USA has (amazingly) scored eight goals from 13 shots on target (a conversion percentage of 61.5 percent). Sporting Kansas City has four goals from 13 on-target attempts (30.8 percent). Surely, some of the success comes relative to the goalkeepers faced, but 8 goals in 13 targeted attempts is excellent.

United, of course, have but two goals this season – the match-winner from Lionard Pajoy vs. Real Salt Lake, and Rafael’s audacious strike from near 40 yards out in the 2-1 loss on Saturday. Pajoy’s goal came off a rebound that he headed home – a nice individual play. Rafael’s goal came after he successfully (and physically) got past Columbus defender Glauber, found himself free, and fired a long-range shot toward goal that eluded Crew goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum. You can argue, perhaps rightly, that Gruenebaum should have had it (he certainly found a way to stop everything else in spectacular fashion Saturday), but Rafael can’t be blamed for having a go in his MLS debut. He took a chance and it paid off.

The key to both plays is that, for the most part, they were individual efforts. Credit Chris Pontius with the pass that Rafael was able to run on to (helped by the fact that after Rafael got past Glauber, Columbus stopped playing, thinking a foul was going to be called). But we haven’t seen a cohesive, sustained attack provide any results yet.

Give Gruenebaum part of the credit for that, as he made a pair of great saves on Dwayne De Rosario shots that would have tied the match at 2-2 in the second half. And, of course, it must be mentioned that United’s Kyle Porter scored what many would consider a perfectly good goal in the first half that was called back after consultation between referee Allen Chapman and his assistant because Pajoy was offside.

Yes, there were attack flurries in the second half where a sense of urgency can be seen and United threatened the Columbus goal. But too many possible attacks are being curtailed by turnovers, forwards wandering (or just standing) offside, or the possession isn’t there at all because United is spending too much time playing defense (as was seen in the match at New York).

United have also been without key parts, given De Rosario’s suspension for the first two matches, Nick DeLeon’s injury in the first half Saturday, and John Thorrington’s injury in the Real Salt Lake match. To this point, however, the first-choice forward (Pajoy) and the first choice off the bench (Ruiz) have been available. It will be interesting to see how much more time Rafael earns after his goal on Saturday. But for now, the production has been lacking. This has put more pressure on the defense, and while Hamid is a stellar young goalkeeper, United can’t expect him to stop everything.

To put the attack in perspective – United is one of only three teams in MLS to have been offside more times (14) than the number of shots on goal taken (13). The others? The Chicago Fire (17/14), who are 0-1-3, have scored just one goal, and allowed nine (see, it could be worse), and the New England Revolution (7/5), who are a respectable 1-1-1, but they have just 1 goal scored (and one conceded) in three matches.

Such is not the company United would like to be keeping on offense. The defense and goalkeeper can’t be perfect every week – especially on days like Saturday, where defender Dejan Jakovic (Canada) and midfielder Marcos Sanchez (Panama) were both gone due to international duty. Sometimes, those at the back and in goal will make mistakes – it’s part of the game. United must have an attack that can A) make up for those mistakes by scoring goals, and B) control the game such that the defense/goalkeeper doesn’t have to do as much work.

United had the possession required Saturday (58.7 percent according to MLS stats), but managed five shots on goal while being offside eight times (perhaps only seven correctly, but you get the point). For its lack of possession, the Crew were much more dangerous, putting nine shots on Hamid’s goal, and being whistled for offside just twice. They were able to get players into open spaces without having to risk being offside, such was their attack. United must be better at attacking in such a way that they create the space, get players there off the ball, and create match-up problems for the opposing defense.

It is only four games. Titanic has not yet sunk. A couple drops of water doesn’t mean the voyage is doomed. But on a pace for just 17 goals this season, United must find a way to turn the ship around rather quickly.

Ed Morgans is a Contributor to District Sports Page who covers D.C. United. He can be followed on Twitter @edmorgans.

About Ed Morgans

Ed Morgans is DC United Page Editor for District Sports Page. Ed worked for The Journal Newspapers (now The Examiner) and covered DC United from 1997-2002. He spent the 2003 season writing for the club’s website. Ed has covered All-Star Games, MLS Cups, CONCACAF Champions Cup, World Cup qualifiers, and international friendlies. He also worked as a blogger at www.bigsoccer.com, the country’s leading soccer message board website. You can follow Ed on Twitter @writerEd21.

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