Tampa Bay Sports Day

Youngsters show the way for DC United

With the exception of a dominant 2-0 win over FC Dallas in a U.S. Open Cup match last week, all six of DC United’s MLS regular season matches have been close affairs where a momentary lack of concentration, a bad bounce or an innocuous play turned dangerous can mean the difference between walking off the field with or without points.

Chris Pontius was the recipient of the former last Sunday in the second half stoppage time, stealing a 3-2 win for United against the New York Red Bulls. The rookie’s instincts and perhaps naiveté, along with a rare major gaffe by Red Bull goalkeeper Jon Conway put him in position to tap in the game winner just seconds after Luciano Emilio had taken advantage of a bounce to draw United level.

United have played three one goal games-two wins and a loss-to go along with three draws in their first six matches. They needed a heroic late goal off a free kick from Ben Olsen a week ago to draw at home with a severely undermanned New England side after dominating most of the game but giving up a goal early in the second half.

United have a rematch with FC Dallas in a league match this Saturday in their first of three games over the next eight days.

The close games look to be the norm and not the exception as United head toward the quarter pole of the season. As Pontius was scoring his game winning goal against New York, it needs to be noted that three of United’s marquee players-Christian Gomez, Jaime Moreno, Ben Olsen-were not on the park.

Olsen was removed in the 50th minute after his ankle didn’t react well to the hard turf and sweltering heat at Giants Stadium after the halftime break while the two South Americans were home nursing injuries.

With Pontius and several other young players in key roles so far, the experience they have gained has been invaluable.

“We have a roster of 24 this year and we knew everybody had to impact it and for the most part everybody has. They are doing it in key roles at key times,” said United coach Tom Soehn. “It’s a great lesson for all of them and it makes you confident about putting them in there at any given time or any given moment even in tough circumstances like it was Sunday.”

Along with the heat and the turf, the rivalry between DC and New York adds a little extra to the game.

“No they should,” added Soehn about his young players performing so well in these tough situations. “Hopefully they are not smart enough to figure out what kind of moment it is.”

“The (grind) is good. The close ones really test our concentration over 90-minutes and we’ve done not so good with it but I think we have done a better job as of late of putting the whole 90-minutes in,” added Olsen. “Now when we figure out some of those lapses in between and fix some of that stuff.

“It’s a good bunch of guys and you saw a pretty athletic team and some young guys really come up. I love the fact that some of these young guys are getting into these close, hard fought battles early. There are not many guys who haven’t (already) seen some good action against good competition early and they have all held up. They are very mature young kids and hopefully they can continue that.”

Pontius, along with Fred and Santino Quaranta, have been a nice combination in the midfield for United as the wily veterans recover and get into 90-minute match shape.

“When you have young players with good soccer knowledge like he does and gets in the right spots, it’s fun to play soccer with guys like that,” said Quaranta about Pontius. “Fred too, brings a lot of energy to the game.

“It’s tough over a 90-minute game for a defense to stay with three guys like that. Over the course of a game, one of us is going to make plays and if we are all making plays it’s a bonus.”

Quaranta assisted on United’s first goal in the 21st minute, sending a fantastic ball across the face of the goal to Rodney Wallace on a dead sprint to the far post, giving the visiting side a 1-0 lead.

“Rodney doesn’t give up on a play and he scores a goal and it just shows that you constantly have to be making that run and he got rewarded for it in the end,” said Quaranta. “That’s just his soccer knowledge and not giving up on a play and making a difference.”

Despite being just 24-years old, Quaranta knows of what he speaks regarding young players making an early impact in this league. This is the Baltimore native’s 9th MLS season after being originally selected by D.C. United in the first round (8th overall) of the 2001 MLS SuperDraft.

At that time, he was the youngest player ever drafted and paid immediate dividends, scoring five goals and one assist in 16 games with 10 starts.

“With these young guys that we have they don’t know any better but just to go out and keep running until you fall over,” said Quaranta tongue-in-cheek. “You want to stamp a mark on the game.”

Despite the better than expected results, United have either given up a lead or needed to come back late to secure points. Soehn and many on the team attribute the late comebacks to a better mentality and more chemistry than the team of one year ago.

“Last year that game would have been over in the 70th minute when we gave that (goal) up but our mentality was a lot different last year. I don’t think it was the prettiest win at all—the conditions were brutal,” said Quaranta.

United gave up the equalizer in the 68th minute as sniper Juan Pablo Angel got just enough of his head on the ball to finish a Jorge Rojas cross from the right flank. New York took the lead 6-minutes later on a goal by Dan Richards.

United had trouble marking Rojas the entire match especially after New York made the switch to a more attacking oriented 3-5-2 in the second half.

“We didn’t adjust to their tactical changes. They switched to a 3-5-2 and we didn’t do a good job with Rojas,” said Soehn. “He dropped into some key spots and we had the wrong guy chase him out and it made our midfield vulnerable.”

“We have had two results from the last minutes of games which means they are fighting for each other,” Soehn added. “It could have ended the other way and New York could have battled for that but it was us because they are fighting for each other and the character of the team is all about that.”