D.C. United whupped New York, 4-1, on Sunday night. It was a battle for second place in the Eastern Conference, and it wasn’t close. The Red Bulls defense wasn’t fully healthy or available, either, but United is as versed in struggling with depth as any team in MLS. That lack of sympathy was evident. A few other thoughts:
Was this a case of D.C. United’s offense overwhelming the New York defense, or the New York defense leaving the door wide open for the D.C. United offense? And what about at the other end of the field? How to explain the lethal, 14-goal combination of Thierry Henry and Kenny Cooper failing to unlock the D.C. United defense?
Start with some credit to Chris Pontius, who grabbed the match by the scruff of the neck and made it his with his early goal. He pounced on an unsuspecting Henry to get the ball for the first goal, owned the midfield on the way to goal, and showed he’s capable of more than just the cutback and meat hook from the left wing. Is one hat trick enough to earn attention from U.S. head coach Juergen Klinsmann. Before we lose our heads, check Herculez Gomez’s scoring total for Santos in Mexico, please.
But D.C. was dominant on the ball from the outset. Cornrow-haired Nick DeLeon was all over the left wing, Dwayne De Rosario and Perry Kitchen were everywhere in the midfield, and Emiliano Dudar was unmistakable in his return to the defense, which was competent throughout.
That makes for a pretty effective strategy for keeping the ball away from Henry, who still eventually got his goal, and Cooper, who wasn’t sharp. Daniel Woolard's containment of Dane Richards on the wing was also effective while long range efforts straight at Joe Willis aren’t high percentage shots. There simply weren’t a lot of nervy moments in the box at that end of the field.
Meanwhile, a Red Bulls unit without Rafael Marquez and Wilman Conde was atrocious, and United’s two goals in four minutes late in the first half all but cemented the result.
Still no goals from De Rosario? Oh, stop it.
“Dwayne is doing enough,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “We all jumped on Dwayne’s back last year and said, ‘Look, take us. Take us to the playoffs.’ He tried, and he did a pretty unbelievable job at it. We said in the offseason that we can’t rely on one guy. We need to get help around him so we don’t have to rely on Dwayne. Dwayne in the midfield is doing a lot for us and we’re going to continue to score goals with him in the midfield so Dwayne doesn’t care. Of course, we always want goals and assists. We all have egos. Ultimately, you’ll see a smile on his face. He wants to win. He’s got a lot of individual honors. His trophy case is just fine. But he wants more team stuff.”
Is it time to start thinking about D.C. United as a contender? In the Eastern Conference, why not? Second place eight matches into the season in a 10-team conference is not too shabby at all. Considering who United’s defeats came against, there’s no reason not to think that D.C. has the pieces to contend with the best teams in MLS on any night.
“To be honest, we’re not trying to get ahead of ourselves,” midfielder Danny Cruz said. “I think that’s what’s making us successful right now. We’re going, okay, look, we’ll enjoy this win and come back and start focusing on Houston, and the results will take care of themselves hopefully. But if we keep doing what we’re doing every single week, I think we’re definitely going in the right direction.”
What can the rest of D.C. United’s reserves – or namely, the guys who are supposed to have at least as much talent and upside as Chris Pontius – learn from how Pontius has reasserted himself as integral to D.C. United’s fortunes?
For one, that it’s not easy to earn your way back into Olsen’s good graces.
“I have a pretty good feel for these guys,” Olsen said. “Training matters in a lot of ways, but I know who these guys are. Nobody’s going to really change my mind too much in a day or two at training.”
The starting group that Olsen went with against New York is his starting group right now. No matter the Designated Player salaries that D.C. United is using to fill the bank accounts of Hamdi Salihi and Branko Boskovic, or the declining international transfer values that will be attached to Bill Hamid and Andy Najar, who have been touted as the best D.C. United has had to offer the last two seasons and were supposed to leave the club this summer via transfer fees to fill D.C.'s coffers. That's not Olsen's concern United has an identity, and has been undeniably effective with Maicon Santos, Dwayne De Rosario in the midfield, Cruz, and Willis.
So when does he dare sit any of them?
“I thought there were some rhythm issues,” Olsen said on Friday, two days after Boskovic and Najar started against Montreal. “You have a couple guys that haven’t played some real minutes, we haven’t had any reserve games. Throwing some new guys in, I thought we weren’t in sync. But as the game grew, we got a little better in that area.”
Olsen was asked point-blank about Willis and confirmed that he is, indeed, the starter in goal.
The onus is on the players to improve every day and assert themselves, but Olsen himself pretty much debunked the idea that it would make that much of a difference. That means his high-value backups need to get used to being high-value backups until he says they aren’t. The track record for this in professional sports isn’t a good one, and the significant questions both linger and grow.
How will they affect the team? On Sunday, D.C. United won by three goals.