Tampa Bay Sports Day

Last minute goal sends DC United to a 1-0 opening loss

It was a classic opening game. The fans came hoping to see signs of a rebirth with new acquisitions and a team style that had finally gelled. They went away disappointed as DC United remained mired in the same ineffective scoring rut that ended the 2011 season.

Kansas City was superior in possession and earned far more good shooting chances. Their own early season rust rendered most of their shots inaccurate, but their possession game was generally sharp and confident. They pressured well and anticipated DC well.

When they had the ball, they exploited the full width of the field. Both teams’ wide midfielders remained wide for the first ten minutes and the possession battle that often begins any MLS game was hard fought and fairly equal.

After that time, United’s Chris Pontius and Andy Najar fell into the same trap that they have for the past two years as they drifted inside, seeking to find more of the ball, only to compress the space available for maneuver and thereby denying creative players like Branko Boskovic room to operate effectively.

From that time forward DC United became the gang that couldn’t pass well and were only saved from a multi-goal defeat by the fact that KC was a gang the couldn’t shoot straight. The conference leaders did encounter a DC defense that seems stronger than last year.

The current back four were under pressure for much of the game and generally covered well, accounting in part for the imperfection of Sporting’s shooting efforts. The same midfield compression that stifled United’s creativity also affected their opponents as the KC attackers were usually in somewhat crowded quarters.

In short, Sporting’s buildup benefited from their better exploitation of width, but United’s defenders were strong enough to pressure KC’s shooters into weaker shot selection and accuracy.

For their own part, DC United’s creative crew, Dwayne DeRosario and Hamdi Salihi were well out of sync. One could almost hear them thinking before reacting when attackers must be proactive to be effective. The real rhythm that makes for scoring success was simply not there.

There were bright notes. Holding midfielder Perry Kitchen was heavily involved throughout the game and generally effective in breaking up or deflecting KC’s buildups. On the other hand, his central midfield compatriot Boskovic seemed ineffectual and was barely noticeable. He spent the game seeking space which was not there. He joined DeRosario and Salihi among the frustrated.

Already an insightful veteran and a cagey creator, Josh Wolff has just been appointed as a player/coach. We conversed at some length on what he has observed when I asked about the team’s failure to exploit width. He acknowledged the problem noting that it is just the beginning of the season, “The only way you can get those sort of things sorted out is to rehearse it, not just in practice, but against real opponents.”

He said he will need to review the videos, but, “We emphasize it (midfield width) as well….Our wide guys are good isolated one on one guys, so the discipline to stay wide, to let the game come to you and the spacing to our midfield and defenders needs to continue to grow. Again, we’ve got a few new guys out there so we haven’t had the time or the repetitions to really get it right. Fortunately for us we’ll get the videos out and take a look at it.”

He believes that new striker Hamdi Salihi, “needs service and we’re gonna have to learn how to construct plays for our wide guys where it’s not just a one on one 30 or 40 yards in and they go and beat a guy to whip one in.

“We’ve gotta create opportunities and advantages for those guys to get good clean looks and balls to whip in to guys like DeRo and Salihi. Their job is to get on the end of it. Over the course of their careers they’ve been extremely good at it.”

He summed it up, “So, there’s plenty to work on. I don’t disagree with the fact that you’ve got to use the width better. Salihi’s attributes are what they are and if we can sort out what’s behind that with service, I think it will be good down the road.”