A surprising season ends, with plenty to be thankful for

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MLS: Playoffs-New York Red Bulls at D.C. United

A DC sports fan knows all about playoff disappointment.  In the best case scenario, the first round of the playoffs are where DC seasons go to die.  I’ve sat in Nationals Park 2 of the last 3 seasons, and watched the home team implode and crash out of the competition.  Today, as I saw Bill Hamid kneel in the center circle, and other United players wander around the field in disbelief, I was as happy as I was sad.  I knew that United were the better team, and that if you played this series three more times, DC would win at least 2 of them.

But as I walked to Lot 8 after DC United “lost” 2-1, I couldn’t find it in me to be upset.  After sitting though seemingly endless home losses in 2013, containing goals I thought I would never see scored at a professional level against United, this season erased all of those games from my memory.

Coming off of a 3 win season, with more goals scored by “Own Goal” that any United player, I will admit that my expectations were very low.  I didn’t even think playoffs were a possibility, and I thought most of the year would be about getting younger players minutes and developing them for when the team would again be relevant.  I looked at the offseason acquisitions cynically, thinking, “yeah, you spent money, but it was the league’s salary money, and only got players no other team wanted at their salary.”  Strictly speaking, that’s still true, but I couldn’t have been more wrong about what those players added to the team week in, week out.

57 goals for, 37 goals against, which tied them with LA Galaxy for the stingiest defense in the league.  Last year, those numbers were 22 and 59.  Bobby Boswell, Chris Rolfe, Sean Franklin, Davy Arnaud and Fabian Espindola turned this team into a completely new team, one that could pass the ball around and actually play attacking soccer, and not just “grit” the other team into a 1-0 loss.  Luis Silva became what 2 teams hoped he would become, and his absence in the playoffs may have been the determining factor (which I would have never thought I would be typing before this season).  Steve Birnbaum did better than any first year player could have ever been expected to do.  Bill Hamid continued to get better, becoming the best goalie in the league and ensured that he would be playing in Europe much sooner than later.

Champions League Quarterfinals next Spring, and qualification for the 2015-2016 tournament.  A team full of knowledgable veterans, who still have more years of contribution in their legs.  Young players like Steve Birnbaum, Taylor Kemp and Luis Silva coming off of their best seasons, and having logically higher expectations of performance in the next season.  After last season’s historic disappointment, something drastic needed to happen in DC to bring the fans back to RFK.  As Bill Hamid said yesterday, “We brought life back to this club this year. We brought life back to soccer in this city”.  You all sure did, Bill.  Thank you.

Wrap it up: DC United squeaks past Waterhouse FC 1-0

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David Estrada dribbling around a number of Waterhouse FC players.

                                   David Estrada dribbling around a number of Waterhouse FC players.

“You need to take CONCACAF Champions League more seriously”, we said.

“You better not start the B squad, we want to win this thing and we care about it”, we said.

Well, based on the result and echo off all of the empty seats in RFK, we don’t know anything about anything.

Ben Olsen spoke to Pablo Mauer earlier last week week about where CCL will rank in terms of lineup choices and prioritization.  Olsen was abundantly clear that advancing to the knockout rounds is a “nice to have” and insuring a safe spot in the MLS playoffs is a “need to have”.  This was demonstrated by the lineup fielded by United against Waterhouse FC, which consisted of a majority of players getting either their first action or first start with United this season.  The only players who have played a major part for United this season were Johnson, who played because he is suspended for league play, and Lewis Neal, who captained the side.

United started very brightly with a great ball by Conor Shanosky to David Estrada that led to an easy tap in for Johnson.  However, within 5 minutes of that goal, the balance of play shifted to Waterhouse, who pelted Joe Willis (and the dugout behind Joe Willis) with a barrage of long range shots.  Willis made one vital save near halftime on a chance that would have leveled the game.

The second half was equally unremarkable for United.  The game became more physical, party because of the rain and also because of Waterhouse’s tendency to fall over.  Players such as Nana Attakora and Conor Shanosky played well in their first opportunity, with Attakora playing an unlikely RB with a number of runs all night (although he didn’t quite have the speed to be useful as overlapping attacker).  Kyle Porter was uncharacteristically flashy, with a number of stepover and moves that usually got him past the first defender, but nothing ever resulted in a solid attacking chance.  David Estrada had flashes of competence, with another assist his pass to Espindola against Colorado, but he also held on to the ball too long a number of times, and neglected to pressure his man occasionally, much to the chagrin of a demonstrative Olsen.  Alex Caskey played a surprisingly competent fullback, making a number of attacking runs and shutting down a few attempts by Waterhouse to widen the field.  Jared Jeffrey had one of his worst games that I’ve seen since he arrived last year, with major problems locking down the middle of the field and being continuously caught in possession.

I thought Collin Martin had an uncharacteristically poor game, which is really unfortunate because I am a big proponent of his and believe he has a serious future with United.  Whether it was because of wet conditions or unfamiliar teammates, Martin lost the ball a number of times in the midfield and was unable to really influence the attack.  I imagine he will have many more chances to make an impact in this tournament, especially in the away games in Jamaica and Panama.

Despite an uneven performance, United won the game and sits atop their group and is set to field their first team against Sporting KC this weekend.  Aside from more goals to pad their goal differential, this game couldn’t have gone better for Olsen and United’s reserves.

 

The Case For and Against Eddie Johnson

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Eddie Johnson

After Eddie Johnson’s recent…conversations with fans on Twitter about his lack of effort, passion, or interest in playing, this issue seems to have intensified among the DC United community, and some of the national media.  That Eddie Johnson would at some point lash out at the team or fans was not a surprise, and is in fact probably the only way a cash bereft team like DC could have even gotten him in the first place.  However, EJ has burned through his benefit of the doubt this season in a number of ways.

The Case Against:

  • He isn’t scoring in any meaningful quantity.  That’s his job.
  • He shows an almost comically low level of effort and hustle while on the field.  Some players tend to just look as if they are loafing, but are able to lull defenders to sleep and show bursts of speed.  Johnson’s problem is that his lack of effort manifests itself in complete capitulation.  EJ will make a run past a defender and not immediately get the ball, and the next 25 seconds are filled with grimaces, arms being thrown in the air, and a snail’s pace to get back onside.  If I could edit a super cut of times where balls intercepted in the midfield had to be held up to wait for him to get onside, or catch him offside, it would be a long and frustrating video.  With 1 red card suspension, and another one pending, he also shows a lack of self control when his frustration boils over and turns it away from his teammates to his opponents.
  • You can’t engage with fans like he did this past weekend.  Fans get silly and hyperbolic, and say cruel and disgusting things on Twitter.  It’s the worst part of the internet.  As a high profile person, you have NOTHING to gain by sparring with fans on social media.  From actively telling fans to stop watching/coming to games, to retweeting requests for him to come back to Seattle, or be sold elsewhere, this was a masterclass in how not to use social media.  At least he didn’t use any racial epithets.
  • He is a designated player.  For a team that is essentially the equivalent of a college kid subsisting solely on Ramen until Dad puts a few dollars on his meal card, any actual outlay of cash needs to bring positive outcomes.  And if that player is not scoring goals, he certainly can’t be a distraction or in any way an impediment to success.

The Case For

  • He is in a situation where his talents are not being utilized to their fullest potential.  EJ did agree to a new contract, and did say the right things about being traded to DC United, but he was also in somewhat complicated position.  Even if he knew that United did not have the talent on the wings or creatively in midfield to take advantage of his style of play, he had a team willing to pay him the way he wanted to be paid.  I imagine that if you told him that he could go back in time and find a way to work things out amicably with Seattle, and continue to get the service he was getting last year, he would do it in a heartbeat.  Has he squandered chances when he has gotten them this year?  He has, but when you’re starved for service and a ball happens to finally come your way, you’re not always in the right mental mode to be able to confidently finish.  As we know, being a striker has a lot to do with being confident and happy, and EJ has been neither of those things.
  • His hold up play is very good.  No one else on this team can make a positive play out of a long ball launched from Hamid or the defenders, and when a team doesn’t have multiple players that can break down defenses on the dribble, that knock down play needs to be part of a team’s arsenal.  Early in the season, Espindola benefited from EJ’s back to goal play, and for him to continue to succeed in the second half of the season and beyond, it can be argued that EJ will be needed.
  • As he has said numerous times, Eddie Johnson is an emotional player.  Many players use frustration, perceived slights, and past rejections as fuel to succeed on the field.  There is nothing wrong with that, and the fact that none of his teammates have reacted to his on field behavior indicates that his teammates may understand that part of his mentality.  Today, EJ told Pablo Mauer that his upbringing has a lot to do with how he handles conflict off the field, but I imagine it also has an effect on field as well.  I read a story on Grantland yesterday about Josh Howard that had a similar message about how a rough childhood can result in turning “adversity into aggression”.

I don’t know what the answer is to this increasingly unavoidable issue.  A fan’s relationship to a player that seems to feed on emotions (#positivevibes) probably needs to be in a better place for that player to succeed on the field.  Fans seem to have made up their minds about EJ, which after a year filled with few goals, little effort, and some unwise comments is understandable.  But, Eddie Johnson isn’t going anywhere.  He will be with United this year and the next.  His performance is nowhere good enough for him to get the European move he wants, and no other team is so financially strapped that they would take on a knowingly “flawed” player who is out of form with no confidence.  I think that even a slight increase in effort on the field, and an attempt to not berate his teammates on the field would buy Johnson a little time to get his confidence back and start scoring again.  The player and fans should learn to co-exist because neither one is 100% right or wrong, and a confident EJ scoring goals will give the fans what they’re looking for.  Even if he just walks around in between goals.