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.