Having had to fulfill duties for my other principal beat, covering the Wizards, I was unable to attend D.C. United’s 4-1 thumping of FC Dallas on Friday at RFK Stadium. Having watched the match this morning, here’s what jumped out:
Perhaps patience really is rewarded. Who took the D.C. United team from the first three weeks of the MLS season and replaced them with a squad that was superior to FC Dallas at every position on the field? Sure, Dallas was missing David Ferreira and George John, but the only thing comparable to this 4-1 win and the 4-1 victory over Real Salt Lake last September – United’s last win of any kind – was the scoreline. That RSL team was makeshift at best. On Friday, Dallas’ absences could almost be considered equal to those for D.C., which was missing Andy Najar (Honduran national team duty) and Bill Hamid (injured). An exhausted Brek Shea played but then so did an exhausted Perry Kitchen. D.C. made the big plays it needed to on defense while converting in exquisite fashion at the other end of the pitch, all the while dominating in the middle for much of the match. There’s no reason to temper the belief, even if there’s plenty of reason not to get too excited with it still so early in the season. But this United team finally proved that it has the pieces to be different and better, by a significant margin, than it has been in recent years.
Joe Willis was superb, but it’s unwise to suggest he’ll supplant Hamid on a regular basis. What was most impressive about the two crucial saves Willis made in the early going against Dallas was how each came about from positioning, not necessarily reaction. Willis later showed his ability to explode with his 6-foot-5 frame with some quality efforts later. But let’s be clear: Hamid has been missing because he’s been with the U.S. national team. He started for the senior national team this winter. He remains one of the key backups for Tim Howard going forward. Yes, he wasn’t at his best for the under-23s during Olympic qualifying, and there’s no doubt that D.C. coach Ben Olsen wants it to be a competition for the starting spot every day, every week in training. But the idea that Willis would assume Hamid’s job really isn’t fair to either player. On the other hand, the fact that Olsen doesn’t have to hesitate when Hamid needs a break is a pretty good deal for D.C. United, proof that the team does indeed have legitimate depth. Oh, and Blas Perez was offside, right?
Speaking of depth, the chemistry, quality and grit from Nick DeLeon and Danny Cruz harkens back to a pair of wing midfielders that helped define D.C. United for a few pretty ridiculously successful seasons: Olsen and Josh Gros. It felt a little like 2006 and 2007 watching DeLeon and Cruz, childhood friends of Arizona, running the flanks and connecting for a crucial and deserving goal. The end of Gros’ career, due to concussions, and Olsen’s, due to his shattered ankles, was a subtle and crucial part of why D.C. United lost the momentum that it had for the middle part of the last decade. With DeLeon, who has two goals and an assist in three MLS games, United has a potential MLS rookie of the year candidate, and in Cruz, whose quality is overlooked and overshadowed by his work rate, they might have Gros 2.0. Similar to the goalkeeper situation, their performances aren’t yet enough to overtake Najar and Chris Pontius, but they certainly are valuable.
Can Dwayne De Rosario cover that much ground every game? On the solid NBC Sports Network broadcast, Kyle Martino talked about how dangerous De Rosario can be when he gets forward. But last year’s MLS MVP was equally impressive making tackles and handling his defensive responsibilities. It’s a taxing job, and it will be interesting to see if Branko Boskovic, whom I’ve defended, can get a chance to handle that job. With the way Maicon Santos played, it’s going to be difficult for Olsen to make any replacements at forward; Hamdi Salihi came close enough to scoring on a number of occasions to show that he’s close to breaking through. That makes De Rosario best suited to start as United’s playmaker next weekend against Seattle, but the physical toll – and Canadian national team duties – will make it all but impossible for him to play that position every week.
Be sure to check out Najar and Honduras, who’ve already earned a place in the London Summer Olympics, against Mexico with the CONCACAF under-23 championship on the line tonight.