29 March 2009

First Impressions - D.C. United 1 : 1 Chicago Fire

Every fiber of my being says to be taken seriously, I should embrace the cynical. And yet, well, I can't. If, like me, you consider United to a perpetual work in progress for this season, then while the picture remains incomplete it does seem like a few corner bits were filled in during this match. Yes, United took a lead. Yes, United gave it up. And yes, United emerged with a draw when a win seemed within reach. I know, this all argues for me to be annoyed and frustrated. I know all the cool kids right now are writing their FIRE SOEHN posts. But to me... To me, here's what I saw that makes me happy to look for the next episode of our favorite running melodrama.

First, the defense. They were embarrassed on the goal surrendered to Nyarko, and they gave up some chances, but... they only gave up one goal. And yes, to me, that's as much as I hope for from this defense in any season. Namoff has an exceptionally good game (exhibit 1: An excellent tackle in the box on Nyarko in the 29th minute), Burch didn't look abused, and Jakovic was beaten by Nyarko's speed but was otherwise better than what he was against L.A. This was a better performance by a defense. Simms and Olsen seemed more comfortable in midfield, though this in part may have been the home field advantage. Wallace and Pontius were not run at all night on the wings, but part of that seems to have been the way Chicago was running their offense. Still, they weren't a defensive liability, which I think you might have wondered about. I'm not expecting a consistent upward trend from night to night, but if this is what we get on any given match with the defense, then one goal allowed will be enough.

Let's talk keepers. Last week I was happy with Wicks, but wondered about his ability to actually make a save. Perhaps he should have done better on the goal he allowed, but in general this game showed good things. When he came off hish line, he got the ball. And in the 89th minute he saved a point for United with a quality save. A difficult save. So as a keeper, I don't feel like all is lost if I see his name on the roster sheet.

United generated chances. Emilio scored one nicely, Olsen's header, had it been about seven inches to the left, might have iced the game, and Chris Pontius skied a shot over the bar. I would have liked more finishing, but I'm willing to accept only one goal provided United generates some chances, which they did.

Do I have concerns? Yes, I do. Despite the results to date, to my eye United looks like a team that players better with a lead. Really, I know I'm writing this after two leads have been squandered, but in both games United's best stretches of play came after their goal was recorded. With the match level, they seem more nervous, tense, and less creative. I worry about how this team would respond if they were to go down a goal in a match. Of course, that would be a situation to never see tested. But it does concern me a little. How will they respond?

I know. It's a draw, and that feels ugly, and United has yet to win a match this season. But this is a team that had the fewest number of draws in the league last year (only 4). In my mind, these are games that United lost last year, not drew. If we are drawing games instead of losing them, and working towards winning instead of drawing, then I think there's a reason for hope. Of course, this mean's I'm a sap for the man, an easy mark, but given that my expectations were to be wallowing in darkness, dread, and despair, I will accept being the patsy. For now, it feels nice to risk naivete.

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At 29 March, 2009 15:03, Anonymous Jeremy said...

Are they winless or undefeated?

I completely agree with your impressions. I am not satisfied with the results, but I am still optimistic. I'm glad that someone else is in the boat with me.

Can someone explain the offsides call on Doe near the end of the match? He may have been offsides. However, the defender touched the ball between when it was passed and when he received it. Doesn't that negate offsides?

At 29 March, 2009 15:08, Blogger I-66 said...

I see our opinions on Wicks are nearly opposites. I hold him solely culpable on the goal, and feel no confidence when he's the starter. Yes, he made the big save late, but his punches are not as adequate as required, and when he did come and successfully claim a cross (when he annihilated Wilman Conde), I considered it an anomaly. I don't have very high expectations for a backup goalkeeper, especially not after 7 matches of MLS experience, but what he did in allowing the goal was absolutely unacceptable for a professional keeper.

At 29 March, 2009 16:14, Anonymous Grunthos said...

I'm in complete agreement with your general sentiments, but I don't see eye-to-eye with your specific match analysis. This was very much a match decided by tactical choices, and was very instructive in a lot of areas, IMO:

1st half
We started off playing a little too aggressively (big shock there), and Chicago almost made us pay in the first 10 minutes. Then Emilio scored his goal, and the rest of the half settled into a comfortable pattern. Chicago played their midfield too deep, which restricted Gomez but gave Olsen and Simms (Benny and Clyde! Ha! Ha!) oodles of room and time on the ball. Just about every attacking move by the Fire had too far to travel and was easily thwarted by our defensive midfield. Then we would give the ball to Benny, acting as our safety valve, and he would use his intelligence and experience to get a good move going the other way. Chicago basically spent the half allowing themselves to be bossed around by a player whose ankles are almost bionic at this point.

2nd half
Hamlett righted his team's ship by switching his midfield and attack from conservative to all-out press. Our confused play in the early second half was directly attributable to the Fire suddenly getting in people's faces and hounding the ball. We had many more turnovers in our own end, and they tested our defense pretty hard. We caught a break, oddly, when they brought on Mr. White, who clearly isn't match fit and basically killed the energy of their press and the speed of their attack.

Given the above, I think our defense showed OK because Chicago often let them show OK. When the Fire applied pressure, our guys looked tentative, and the couple times Chicago made a good, quick move upfield, we were caught out and needed top-notch tackles to save the play. Jakovic (understandably) looked uncomfortable much of the game. Namoff's usually solid play was undermined by a few major gaffes.

Wicks made more than one good save, but his handling remains suspect and his decisions (and speed) coming off the line are inadequate. That said, he's an MLS backup, I'm not asking for miracles from him, just to keep the team in the game, and he did that, albeit barely.

This was not Gomez's preferred type of match, with Chicago packing the middle and giving us space wide, and I can give him a pass for not being more involved. Wallace had some nice ideas, but it is much too early for him to be in synch with the squad's veterans, and so nothing really panned out for him. Pontius showed some very good skills on the ball, had that nice dipping cross, and generally gave me hope that the front office made a good call when they drafted him. Soehn was right, we needed to feed him the ball more.

Overall, I'm already more comfortable with having Wallace and Pontius out there than I ever was with Peralta, Martinez, and O'Neill last year. If they grow and solidify, this may quickly turn into DC's best-ever draft class. But the defense will be on tenterhooks for quite a while, as we expected, and this team will probably go up, down, and all around this season as we try to integrate the talent on hand.

MOTM: Benny
Notably good: Pontius.
Notably bad: On aggregate, no one, although Namoff, Wicks, Jakovic, and Gomez were all sub-par for significant stretches or screwed up more than one play.

At 30 March, 2009 10:01, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Definitely a work in progress.

What puts thing in perspective is that they played without five key starters and were down to their no. 3 central defender on the depth chart when CJ Brown went down in the first few minutes of the game. We also played without four starters and maybe five depending on what we do with McTavish when he comes back and Quaranta and Fred are available. So this was halfway to a reserve game or somewhat akin to a US Open Match.

Our players seemed unfamiliar with each other. Clyde is learning to play with another defensive Mid and a rusty one with a heavy touch at that. Both are learning to play with a center back who got off the plane two weeks ago and has not seen a lot of minutes on the field in a long time. The fullbacks are working with rookies on the flanks. The only guys who are familiar with each other are Moreno, Emilio and Gomez up top; and they are in the "run five meters and pass 25 meters" (Bora!) phase of their careers -- except for Emilio who is in the "run five meters shoot 25 meters" phase of his career.

We will get better because these guys are raw and the team is raw.

At 30 March, 2009 11:44, Blogger rke said...

I'm feeling optimistic as well.

Had Wicks trusted his defender to force a weak shot and stayed on his line, we would have taken the 3 points. A costly mistake, but one we can live with for a backup keeper.

Otherwise, while there were ebbs and flows, I thought we had the best of the match. This against the team that all the prognosticators are calling at the top of the league.

Defense is shaping up better than everyone feared. Jakovic is generally pretty solid, and Namoff is reliable. Pontius and Wallace both worked hard in the back, and of course Benny & Clyde were a solid escape valve. This may not be the best defense in the league, but it sure doesn't look like the worst. An improvement over last year -- especially if we can keep the 3 in the back. Midfield is our game, and if we can play to that strength, all the better.

Attack looked dangerous, but slow. I'm looking forward to a bit more chemistry between the targeting and footwork from the vets and the speed from the new kids. We need someone faster than Emilio making runs.

The Gomez-to-Pontius point-blank chance that Busch saved would have been goal of the week. More of that please!


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