Tampa Bay Sports Day

When practice isn’t enough

Rumor has it that DC United is pursuing a new player named Sisyphus who has demonstrated serious skills in handling a rock. His skills in nearly attaining his goal only to have the rock elude him just before he succeeds appear completely in line with United’s experience this year.

It can’t be overemphasized that the mythical icon has massive experience with frustration following heroic effort. He has certainly had enough practice to serve as a role model for the hard-working yet unrewarded team from DC.

Ben Olsen sat silently for about twenty seconds before the press could muster the obvious question. He paused again and then gave the same answer he and the players have so often given in the past month, “I mean, yeah, we had it. What do you want me to say? We had it. You know. In the end you got to finish it up. The guys, I’m very proud of them. We just, can’t reward ourselves. It’s very frustrating.”

These young professionals know that they have indeed trained well. It has shown in a steady improvement in shape and discipline as first Curt Onalfo and now Ben Olsen have gradually instilled a generally coherent style of play into the team.

Attacking buildup has improved and defensive support has also grown better. It seems that the only thing left is to finish off chances. They have become Jimmy Breslin’s mafia parody, “The Gang that couldn’t shoot straight.”

The players and coaches are clearly mystified and disheartened. Like Sisyphus, they continue to play hard and with increasingly better discipline and cohesive effort even as the season has spiraled down. Their training seems to have worked well in producing the movement required to set up goals.

Practice, however focused and effective, is not practical for 3 yard shooting drills! Too often the players have opted for the final accurate touch, almost as if trying to walk the ball into the net or place it perfectly.

In a singular example, the experienced Dejan Jakovic seemed too casual as he leaned back to send an easy tap in too high in the 106th minute. Even a Canadian international can try too hard to be relaxed as he shoots. In the very attempt not to choke, the player does exactly that.

Jakovic had been asked to move forward to join the attack as United strove to reply to the Crew’s overtime game winner and said that he felt comfortable doing so since he had been an attacker in college. More recently ingrained defensive habit may have factored into his miscue.

There is a zen-like art to relaxing while keeping focus and these guys haven’t found it. The players now recognize that all that is left is to avoid the cellar and hope to perform well enough to keep their jobs. For a few, that will come surprisingly easily.

Andy Najar clearly applies himself very professionally to self improvement while maintaining a youthful joy in his play. He is too young to be discouraged and is a role model in his naivete. The game is meant to be fun, even for professionals, and that simple attitude might carry the team to at least some late season success.

United’s greatest successes have come from the type of player who simply lets fly when an opportunity arises. Danny Allsop typifies that style and now benefits from his unpredictability. Another such player is Tino Quaranta who will fire from distance, but has been frustrated by being just a few degrees off on so many shots.

Perhaps the whole team should simply fire at the center of goal on the theory that random error is more likely to beat the keeper.

On the subject of random error, consider the referee, Chris Penso, who was the subject of pre-game press wonder at who the new guy was. Sadly, he demonstrated that like Koman Coulibaly, he was over his head at this professional level.

Referees discuss among themselves the moment of truth that sometimes happens in a game, when a difficult, courageous, or simply consistent call will tell the players just what the referee is made of. Players will play to the level that a referee shows he will allow. Inconsistent calls first confuse and then irritate them.

In a series of decisions in the first half, Penso penalized two DC United players with cautions while allowing two similar infractions by Columbus Crew players to pass as mere fouls. He seemed particularly oblivious to persistent fouling of Pablo Hernandez. In one instance, probably not seen by him, Hernandez had his face raked from behind by a defender.

Hernandez took a while to recover, and may have been misunderstood by the inexperienced referee to be too strongly reacting to fouls. It then becomes easy for the referee to make light of subsequent persistent defensive foul play against such a player.

Just as a team can practice in a focused manner at a high level to improve itself, so must a referee. It appears that Mr. Penso is viewed by USSF, who assigned him to this game, as an up and coming future star. If so, he needs a bit more seasoning and practice in foul recognition before he is ready to officiate an Open Cup semi final.

In his defense, his ejection of Hernandez for “serious foul play” was based on explicit input from the 4th official and nearest assistant referee. A more experienced referee might have had a longer discussion with them to assure himself that all three agreed on what the sequence and nature of events was.

Tape of the play seems to warrant a caution for reckless play by the Crew’s Danny O’Rourke in tackling Hernandez, followed by a marginal ejection call on Hernandez for at least attempting to strike O’Rourke, followed by a second caution to O’Rourke for unsporting behavior as he taunted the fallen Hernandez.

This was a moment of truth. Players recognize an injustice and this incident called for both players to be dismissed or both to be cautioned.

Referees are rightly taught to be certain that the issuance of a caution or ejection, when not specifically mandated, should provide some needed benefit. Recent doctrine emphasizes game/player management and that requires good judgment only obtainable with experience and concentrated effort.

United can take no real comfort from knowing that the rock that rolled back on them had a tiny push from the hand of inexperience. They rallied strongly to fight on with only 10 men and nearly prevailed. But in the end, they know that they have only themselves to look at when they didn’t finish two superb chances.