Tampa Bay Sports Day

United readies for intense two months

After an admirable performance in 3-0 loss to Real Madrid last Sunday before a huge but pro-Madrid crowd, DC United travels to another lively and loud environment when they take on Toronto FC for a critical road match that could slightly untangle the crowded Eastern Conference table.

“These teams are doing well and we need a win here. This game is very important; one of the bigger games of the year so far,” said United midfielder Santino Quaranta. “We have a chance to rest some guys and get everybody back on the same page here. A week (off) is nice…

“We are in a tight race for a playoff spot and I think for me that’s the most important thing right now. Every game is very important but this game is crucial; We gotta try and concentrate on this.”

United (6-4-10, 29 points) sits just one point ahead of Toronto in third place in the conference. Toronto also lost to Los Galácticos 5-1 just two days prior before the largest crowd in BMO Field history. The 72,368 fans at FedEx Field just outside Washington, DC were the most to ever watch a DC United match although most were sporting the white shirt of the visitors.

United’s first XI held their own with the world giants for nearly an hour before succumbing to the heat and the wave of world class players that Madrid put onto the field that they could just not match. Regardless of the score, they all admitted, veterans and younger players alike, that is was a great learning experience.

“We tried our best, but sometimes you’re just outmatched,” said midfielder Ben Olsen after the match.

“It’s how clean they are on the ball; their decisions, their movement off the ball. Everything they do is world-class,” added Chris Pontius. “It was fun being on the field with them and I thought especially in the first half, I thought we did real well and even in the beginning of the second half…they subbed in a few more people than we did and Arjen Robben came in and changed the game. He came in and ran at people and put us in some bad situations.”

United pressured Madrid high which clearly frustrated them, as well as staying very compact holding a high defensive line. They also had their fair share of possession but lacked the ingenuity and decisiveness in the final third to finish the deal.

“I thought we did a pretty good job of accomplishing what we wanted to do-pressure them high and win some balls high. We didn’t do as well with them as I thought we could have. Against good teams you are only going to get a couple of looks and we had opportunities to get in but something missed in the final third;” said Coach Tom Soehn after getting an opportunity to watch the tape and break it down.

“But overall the first half, respecting who they are, we did a pretty admirable job of holding them and frustrated them a little bit. The second half was like I thought. I knew we were tired and them bringing on some horses – of course there’s Robben. When they tried to sucker us we did a good job of closing shape but when Robben came on, he went at guys and that caused us a lot of havoc.”

Conversely, Toronto sat back and allowed Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Raul, Robben and Gonzalo Higuain, who scored two of the goals against United, to run at them throughout most of the match.

Ironically, United have struggled on the road this year, 1-4-6, because they seem to forget what they do best-possess and attack. They have typically stopped pressuring after taking a lead and allowed teams to run at them and dictate tempo.

United have led in eight of their 11 road matches and either squandered that advantage immediately or late in the match. In the season opener at Los Angeles and again two weeks ago against San Jose, United had two goal leads only to settle for draws.

After a complete lack of concentration over a 4-minute span during which they gave up 3 goals and doomed United in a 4-3 loss to Houston two weeks ago, United went down to El Salvador and put together a promising performance in a 2-1 win over C.D. L.A. Firpo on penalty kicks to advance to the group stage of the CONCACAF Champions League.

“I just don’t think we’ve been on the same page and I really saw it in Houston,” said Soehn. “We made a big effort to correct that and I though in El Salvador we did a good job. It’s not in so much pressuring high but making sure we are organized and doing it the right way; back shifting when they need to and we have been focusing on that a lot and the last two games have dictated that we are starting to do a better job of it.”

“Tommy has talked about it so much that it doesn’t matter what shape we play or whatever. It has to be 11 guys on board here from the front forwards to the back,” added Quaranta, who did not play against Real Madrid nursing a hamstring injury.

“It all starts up top with our pressure. We have enough guys who can change the game with a free kick or whatever so if you keep the game close you always have a chance.”

Higuain’s first goal was a complete lack of communication and indecision between Marc Burch and Greg Janicki allowing Higuain to split them quite easily before knocking one past Josh Wicks to the far corner.

Communication has been an ongoing issue, primarily with the multiple defensive breakdowns that have cost United precious points in the standings.

“I think it’s just communication. We have good athletes, really good players in the defense but we just have to communicate better,” said reserve goalkeeper Milos Kocic. “It’s different with three in the back or four in the back so you have to communicate more because there is more space to cover.”

According to Kocic, United Assistant Coach Mark Simpson sits behind his and Wick’s goal during scrimmages advising both young ‘keepers what to say and to whom.

The energetic environment at BMO Field will further test their communication systems.

“We know what it is and we know what to expect. I don’t think BMO is any more hostile than the last two crowds and in some ways it brings out the better in us,” said Soehn, referring to El Salvador and unfortunately to the Madrid match.