Monday, October 26, 2009

Down Goes United

It has been a season of being on the brink of achievement and falling short. Losing the Open Cup to the Sounders at RFK; needing a win in Mexico against Toluca to advance out of the group stage in the In Name Only Champions League and managing a draw; and, last night, needing a win against the Wizards in Kansas City to gain a playoff berth but allowing Zusi and company to pick up a point.

Oh well. After a day of reflection, I can write that I was at least happy with the effort. After a number of games this season where the players did not seem to give two sh*ts about the shirt or the fans, United played committed and with urgency last night. At the end of the first half, I was surprised by the realization that the team's best two players were Julius James and Danny Szetela. Szetela was particularly impressive. Although his touch failed him a few times in the midfield, Danny's pace allowed him to cover back, permitting Burch, James, and Jakovic to be more aggressive in their marking. On one dangerous Wiz attack in the first half, Burch lost his man and Szetela came back and disrupted the play in the box before goal, keeping Kansas City off the scoreboard. More impressive, however, was the precision shown in Szetela's long boots forward. I like that United plays the ball on the ground and works its way up field. At the same time, when the other team's backline is napping and Emilio is running -- as he was yesterday -- it would seem foolish to not try and take advantage of that aspect of the game. Szetela was able to put the ball forward in spaces that allowed Emilio and Pontius to run onto them, something that has been conspicuously missing from previous games.

Some other surprises from last night: I thought Fred played a better game than Wallace on the wings (the first time I've thought Fred was the better wide player all season). I thought the backline was very good overall and that Burch played a solid fullback role. I thought Pontius demonstrated that he is best utilized up top and not in the midfield. I thought Emilio showed that he can play well with the support of another forward and was willing to take the ball to the wide areas of the goal box to set up attacks (he had a couple beautiful flicks). I thought the two worst performances (relative to everyone else's) of the night were turned in by Ben Olsen and Boyzzz Khumalo (one of my favorite players on the team, if not my favorite), the second half subs. Olsen should have received a straight red for the shove of Jewsbury on the sideline and, although there is some poetic justice in the fact that Fred's blatant dive earned a pk and his handball gave up the pk, the reality is that Olsen tackled his man in the box prior to the handball -- he wasn't subtle about it -- and given Fred's cramping, DCU was fortunate that Fred was tossed and not Olsen. Boyzzz did not add much as an energizing force but, to be fair, the circumstances were not appropriate for the substitution.

As usual, Simms was solid and Wallace showed promise, with Cronin making a compelling argument that he should get another crack at the MLS. All in all, a good showing and it would be difficult to hang the result on the players on the pitch.

Taking the year as a whole, although United at least managed to win the Open Cup last year, I am much happier about being a season ticket holder this year than I was this time last year. The folks in the front office were excellent and the decision to include the Champions League matches as part of the season ticket package was emblematic of the sincerity with which the FO addresses problems that are identified by experience. I complained about one thing this season and the good people in administration came up with a solution that resolved any problem. More importantly, the quality of the team put on the pitch was far more talented than what United fans suffered through last year.

Nevertheless, I hope that Tommy Soehn does not return as the head coach of the team next year. Soehn is a nice man. He is a Chicagoan. He is probably a good soccer coach and hopefully he will get a chance somewhere else. Many will point to the bizarre use of substitutions in the single most important match of the year as a fair representation of his failings as a manager... I prefer to focus on the fact that Rodney Wallace was assigned to mark Kei Kamara. This took thought, consideration, and planning. And despite the fact that Wallace looked overmatched on early set pieces, no adjustment was made, ultimately leading to Zusi's free kick and the effective end of United's season. The decision was made all the more bizarre by the fact that a change was made at half to put Pontius on Kamara -- which had to seem like the only logical choice given that Kamara is the Wizards' only real aerial threat.

Many United fans seem intent on seeing an overhaul of the roster with a clear out similar in scale to what happened last year. That seems remarkably short-sighted. Under a new coaching regime, the talent amassed by Mr. Payne should have a chance to shine. At most, I would hope that only a few players are asked to leave: Greg Janicki is probably not an MLS-quality defender and I hope to see him again in the third division. Avery John has seen better days (and James and Vaughn performed more competently in limited chances) and David Habarugira may eventually be a decent player, it won't be anytime in the near future. For everyone else, I am not sure. No one saw much out of Ely Allen and although DiRaimondo looked useful on loan to the Kickers, that's pretty far afield from the MLS.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Black Bear, Black Bear What Do You See?

A month ago the plan was to fly to Cincinnati to see friends across the river in Kentucky and then watch the Bears on Sunday afternoon. But the season started and Ron Turner still called the plays for the offense and I have decided to implement a new rule: if my team's offense is controlled by either (a) John Shoop or (b) Ron Turner, I will not travel to see them play. Turner is by no means the worst offensive coordinator the Bears have employed, nor is he responsible for Chicago being a .500 team that will struggle to make the playoffs, but last week's game against the Falcons in Atlanta sums up well Turner's legacy: Mike Mularkey adjusted the Falcons' offense to exploit the weaknesses that an injury-ravaged Bears defense presented and put the Windy City boys on their heels; Turner did not, declining to put the game into Jay Cutler's hands and run a no-huddle offense that might capitalize on the limited skills of Atlanta's cornerbacks. So, no need to go to Ohio this year and, in fact, no need to even find a bar to watch the game.

Instead, we headed out to Shenandoah National Park for a beautiful day spent on Skyline Drive. Our 16-month old was amazed by caterpillars, salamanders, chipmunks, birds, and deer (although, truth be told, she was most excited by a beetle that she got hold of). For the rest of us, our highlight was a four foot black bear that wandered across the street from us on a trail near Big Meadows. On getting close, the bear turned tail and scampered back into the dense woods. It had no fight in it. So it was almost as if we had gone to the Queen City anyway.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

One v. One

Champions League matches abounded yesterday: a squad from a little Romanian town went to Ibrox and embarrassed the SPL; mighty Barca was humbled by Rubin Kazan; Anfield saw a massive upset in extra time as Ligue Un giants Lyon took the EPL down a notch; and late goals in Group H gave Olympiakos three points and, in the other match, insured a split between Arsenal and Alkmaar. Meanwhile, on another side of the world, in the In Name Only Champions League played in CONCACAF, DC United failed to insure an advance out of the group stages by managing only a draw away at Toluca (I am typing this while watching Metapan-Dynamo, one of the worst soccer matches I have ever witnessed -- all those United fans who rant about Emilio's diminished effectiveness should check out Brian Ching's inept performance turned in tonight). None of that, however, distracted me from Maryland's home game against Seton Hall.

We learned midweek while in Florida that Alex Lee had been hit by a car while walking in Dupont Circle. Considering the extent of Lee's injuries, the games probably are not that important in perspective. Nevertheless, Maryland's response to Lee's individual tragedy was to go out and beat Georgetown and Clemson away. Tuesday night's game against another Big East opponent was their first at home since Lee's injury and Alex was supposed to be in attendance.

Only a little more than 500 people showed up to see Seton Hall break a deadlock in the 22nd minute. Giovanni Zammiello was given a lot of time on the ball to square up a shot. It is a testament to how impressed I have been with Ethan White that, at first, I thought he just wasn't on the field as I was certain that he would never let a player be that open without a tough, physical challenge.

The Terps response was fantastic. Kwame Darko, the fifth year senior who will replace Lee, threw his body dangerously in the air to win a poorly cleared 50/50 ball that set Drew Yates free in the box to slot home the equalizer. Darko risked serious injury on the play, but demonstrated that Maryland wanted a result more than their opponents (the Crew, often confused when not directing puerile insults at opposing teams, chanted Drew Yates' name, in recognition of the beneficiary of Darko's hard work).

Maryland took the lead on something that has been a long time coming: a Terp converting on a one on one opportunity against the opposing team's keeper. Jason Herrick beat Paul McHenry when set free by a ball from Matt Kassel. The opportunity was there and Herrick made the most of it.

Maryland again dominated in shots taken -- 19 to Seton Hall's 9 -- but, last night, managed to put three into the net.

Two huge matches coming up: Wake Forest away on Saturday night and back home a week later against Virginia.

Get well soon Alex.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

There's Nothing Wrong With Nationalism...

"... and if you ask me, I will say it is fine."

On Wednesday morning, my family was enjoying 85 degree weather and basking in sunshine on the beach in Clearwater. On Wednesday evening, I stood amongst the throngs of Sam's Army in a downpour of cold, continuous, unrelenting rain in 40 degree weather at RFK. Wouldn't have it any other way.

We sit on the opposite side of Barra Brava and for the first time that I can remember, no one sat down during the entire game. The atmosphere was fantastic and for a relatively disappointing turnout, the stadium did not feel empty.

I have developed an irrational dislike for Landon Donovan, but the hard rain on Wednesday night washed most of that away. Donovan's skills were fully on display in what were tough, nasty conditions. Down 2-0 after some lackadaisical play from the U.S. centerbacks (Onyewu and Bocanegra), Donovan showed extraordinary effort and heart on the wing. He tracked back when necessary, folded in to keep the Ticos' defense on its heels, and exhibited his great touch in turning past individual Costa Rican players. I certainly did not hop on the metro expecting to fall in love with LD, but 90+ minutes of watching him a few rows from the field and I am ready to admit the error of my ways. He was, far and away, the best player in the U.S.'s midfield.

And although Donovan was great and Robbie Rogers was a revelation as a substitute on the right wing and the late equalizer from Bornstein was euphoric, Jozy Altidore alone was worth the price of admission. Jozy is far more comfortable up top than I've ever seen him before and the confidence he plays with is now matched by transcendent skill. On one play in the first half, he picked up a pass, turned, beat the man marking him, slid from right to left, beat two more Costa Rican defenders and served the ball perfectly to Conor Casey (who clearly regressed to the mean after a breakout match in Honduras on Saturday). Altidore himself missed a couple of half chances, but when he starts to convert those opportunities, he will be one of the world's elite strikers. The most impressive thing about Altidore's performance was how he earned the multiple free kicks awarded during the match by refusing to go down easily when he was hacked at by Ticos' defenders in the early going. By keeping his balance and forcing his way into openings, Altidore -- by his actions -- demonstrated to the referee that he was not going to be looking for whistles. For the rest of the game, Jozy got the benefit of the doubt when he hit the turf. He is so big, so fast, and so skilled that he simply has to play. His short time in the EPL seems to have already borne fruit and, if Phil Brown has the courage to stick with Altidore, Hull City may stave off relegation this season.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


There are some things I generally do not do (check that, there are a lot of things I don't do), and near the top of that list is flying solo. I have, maybe, gone to one or two movies by my lonesome and, while I used to go to games at Jack Murphy when the Cubs came to town on my own, I have rarely gone to sporting events without accompaniment. So I take it as a testament to how much I love watching Maryland play (rather than declining popularity) that I went to the Terps match last night after being shot down by those who would normally join me.

And, as usual, a great time was had by all. This team may not be one of the best teams in the country, but they are fun to watch. The only goal scored in the game was off a beautiful cross from Kwame Darko from the right hand side put home by Kaoru Forbess. But what made the trip worthwhile was watching Alex Lee and Widner Saint Cyr in the second half. I have been so smitten with Ethan White's play that I have not paid sufficient attention to how good Alex Lee is at right back. The sophomore was a menace marauding forward and Loyola had no answer for his quick stepover. For his part, Saint Cyr is fun to watch. A little Widner backheel drew gasps from an otherwise unengaged crowd.

By all rights, Maryland should have buried Loyola. They outshot Loyola 20 to 7 but converted only once. For the season, Maryland has outshot its opponents 188 to 81 but have scored only 15 goals and almost half of those came in the match against Duquesne. They are averaging 19 shots for game and have only been outshot once in ten matches this season (against the Tar Heels -- 10 shots for UNC, 7 for Maryland). 77 of the 188 shots have been on goal and should they figure out how to get balls into the net, this will be one hell of a team.

Monday, October 5, 2009

What Are You Doing?

Rather than try and mend fences and keep the momentum that the USL has built up over the last few years, the league's new owners decided instead to douse a conflict with gasoline and strike a match. On Friday, USL's new management sent an e-mail to players on the Carolina Railhawks, the Minnesota Thunder, and Miami FC informing them that they were no longer under contract with their clubs per the strict terms of the USL standard player contract. That includes U.S. U-20 National Team center back Gale Agbossumonde; former DC United alums Rod Dyachenko and Quavas Kirk; and the captain of the National Champion Maryland Terps, Rich Costanzo.

This would seem to be an out and out disaster for the league as Carolina was one of the better franchises in the USL1. It would also seem to be the beginning of a string of bad news that may overshadow the enjoyable theater of the USL1 playoffs, captured perfectly by the second leg of one of the semifinals broadcast tonight on the Fox Soccer Channel, with Portland falling just short at home against the Whitecaps. As Portland and Vancouver matriculate to the MLS in 2011 (and Montreal hopefully not far behind), what the league looks like today will certainly not be what it looks like (if it exists at all) three years from now. This is not good news for fans of the sport in the U.S. and Canada, as the USL has done a remarkable job of stoking interest in soccer in places that the MLS cannot reach.

But, setting aside the survival of the USL, DC United is desperate to improve its backline. Although this declaration of war probably clears the way for Agbossumonde to head Europe, once the FO fires Soehn it ought to try everything within its power (and within the rules, since I have never tried to understand the MLS's convoluted acquisition guidelines) to sign him. And, while they are at it, bring Costanzo in for a look.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

New Beginning

I've made three trips to RFK in seven days and, leaving aside what has taken place on the pitch with DC United, it has been an eventful week. On Sunday afternoon my wife and daughter had a chance to meet United's players at an autograph session. Both were charmed by Fred, one of the nicest professional athletes that anyone will ever run across. The frustration that Fred must feel this season is evident and yet despite all the hostility he has felt from (moronic) supporters for subpar performances, it has not impacted how he interacts with fans. On Wednesday, after United's In-Name-Only Champions League rout, my sister and I had our first experience with being escorted out of the stadium by security after taking exception to an incredibly offensive slur screamed by the supervisor (?) of security at another United supporter. Last night, I took my daughter to the match all by my lonesome before she mercifully demanded that we head home after the 70th minute mark.

It would be great if that was all that I recalled about this last week. Unfortunately, this is also the week where I have fully paid up my membership on the "Fire Soehn" bandwagon. It is always dangerous (and somewhat messy) to try and apportion blame when a pro team disappoints. The Cubs this year are a good example. Jim Hendry should not shoulder sole responsibility for this year's disaster of a season, but he is probably more responsible than anyone else because he had the biggest hand in assembling a mixture of players that were noxious both to themselves and the fans. It is hard to argue that Pinella could have done much more with the team he was given than what he achieved.

Similarly, Soehn is not solely responsible for how bad this season has been, but he is, nevertheless, principally responsible. A vocal minority of United supporters have tried to lay the blame on a number of players: the aforementioned Fred; the formerly idolized Luciano Emilio; Christian Gomez; Josh Wicks; Marc Burch; Greg Janicki; etc., etc. In truth, this season's version of DC United is far more talented and has far greater depth than last year's version and, yet, the results have been roughly equivalent. When a team plays with no drive, no passion, no initiative, limited effort, and general disinterest, that is on the coach. When players have little to no idea where they will be playing and what their responsibilities will be, that is on the coach. Christian Gomez got pulled in the 43rd minute in a pointless, insulting substitution because everytime he got the ball up front, he had no options to play the ball to. No tactical change on the field with his surrounding players, just Gomez pulled so that Moreno could stand up by himself and achieve just as much as Gomez.

I am getting more and more used to heading to RFK with the expectation that United will be outcoached and outclassed in every match. Too much talent has been wasted and two seasons of embarrassment is two seasons too many.