Is D.C. United a contender yet? United (4-2-3, 15 points) has the fourth-most points in Major League Soccer after beating last year’s MLS Cup runner-up, the Houston Dynamo, pretty convincingly, even if the score was 3-2. They’re unbeaten in seven straight matches. They’re in second place in the Eastern Conference. They’ve got one of the hottest goal scorers in MLS in Maicon Santos and the frontrunner for rookie of the year in Nick DeLeon. Plus Dwayne De Rosario finally has a goal.
Keep all this in mind after D.C. plays its next three games on the road. The trip is a doozy. The team leaves at the crack of dawn on Monday for the West Coast, ahead of playing at San Jose on Wednesday. From there, it’s on to Toronto for a weekend match before heading back home, and back out to Houston for a rematch with the Dynamo on May 12 in the first game at BBVA Compass Stadium, not exactly a game the hosts are going to want to lose.
For now, the signs are positive, and the relief was no joke after D.C. got its first consecutive MLS wins since June 2009.
“No, it was a sense of relief,” United coach Ben Olsen said with a straight face when asked if that streak was a media-driven phenomenon.
A few other thoughts:
*De Rosario came within inches of the goal of the season and quite possibly the best goal ever scored in RFK Stadium. Watch. Now.
*Chris Pontius continues to improve and assert his role in the team. The partnership with Santos is improving by the minute, and what might’ve been most striking about the Houston match was there were areas where the D.C. attack could’ve been even better than it was against a formidable Dynamo defense.
“Today’s the first time I really realized he can play forward,” Olsen said. “He’s going to be learning the position very quickly, and we asked him to not be a guy tonight to just stand on their two center backs. That’s what they want. We wanted him to pull them out with runs in behind and runs underneath. I thought he did a very good job of executing that. It gave Maicon some room, and it gave them a little bit of trouble.”
Pontius said he’s getting more and more comfortable.
“I turned over way too many balls tonight, just in possession, and I need to get better,” he said. “But I’m getting more comfortable, being able to read Maicon and DeRo. It’s coming.”
Speaking of the Houston defense, any chance former United defender Bobby Boswell turned into a bit of a villain tonight? He had words with Pontius, and somehow escaped without a yellow card in the fracas that earned cautions for both De Rosario and Corey Ashe.
*Olsen’s bigger concern is the D.C. back line, which seems likely to be without Emiliano Dudar for a couple weeks after the big center back suffered his second left hamstring strain of the season. The last one cost him two games, and he said this injury was a little stronger. Meanwhile, Dejan Jakovic (ankle) said he’s not traveling with the team this week, and Ethan White (knee surgery) isn’t ready to play either. Robbie Russell is a decent center back, but Perry Kitchen didn’t play well at right back after Russell shifted to the middle, and Chris Korb has been shaky at times when he’s come in as a reserve.
*Speaking of Russell, he’s got a sweet tattoo on the right side of his abdomen with all the crests of the clubs that he’s played for. He hasn’t yet figured out where the D.C. United crest will go, but it’s coming. He has to meet with his guy first.
*In his first match against his former team, Danny Cruz came out flying. But his precision was a little off – he nearly blew out Geoff Cameron’s knee – and he got burned badly by Jermaine Taylor on Houston’s first goal.
“For me, and I’ll be honest, I was a bit nervous,” Cruz said. “It’s different than I expected. I’m not going to lie. Stepping on the field against people who were we’re family. This is my new family, and to step on the field against a family that kind of helped mold me into the player I am was a bit a different. There were nerves there. I’m not going to lie. It showed a little bit, and hopefully it’s out of the way, and I can perform better the next time we play them.”
*Joe Willis also gave up his first shaky goal, allowing Will Bruin’s strike to squibble through him. Sure, the ball was wet, but was it a sign that Willis is ready for a rest? This is where Olsen’s management of his players will get tricky. If Bill Hamid starts in San Jose, the signal to Willis could come across as he screwed up and that’s why he gets to sit. If Willis starts against the Earthquakes, is that a sign that Olsen isn’t holding Willis accountable when Hamid needs and deserves a game? The same goes for Andy Najar, who showed flashes in his half-hour spell for Cruz in the second half. Cruz recognized that he didn’t have a great game. There’s a subtle difference between resting and rotating players versus replacing them, and it can have an effect on the players and morale in the locker room. This, along with the back line and the road trip, will give Olsen plenty to handle in the coming two weeks. How he and the team does should give a good idea of whether the welcome two-game winning streak is something to build on before June, when international call-ups make things tricky in a different way.