By Paul Gardner
To call D.C.United a struggling team hardly does justice to the depth of its problems. It is a team stuck in one of those dreadful time-locks when absolutely nothing goes right. And it's painful to watch, because this team was, once upon a time, the closest MLS ever came to having a great team.
When did this awful slide from grace begin? Certainly before this season, so Curt Onalfo can hardly be blamed for all the woes - though his team building attempts seemed from the start to have a ramshackle air to them.
D.C. United was a team with a recognizable style. It interested me greatly because at its best, in the early Bruce Arena days, it did seem to successfully combine the best of the Latin style with the more mundane skills that Americans had to offer. It was always worth watching ... and of course, it won. Two MLS Cups, and a couple of rare international titles, the Concacaf Champions Cup and InterAmerican Cup in 1998. The sense of style survived Arena’s departure after the 1998 season -- something that, I’ll admit, surprised me, because, of the coaches who followed -- Thomas Rongen, Ray Hudson, Peter Nowak and Tom Soehn - only Hudson struck me as the sort of personality that D.C.United needed -- if it were to remain D.C. United.
Rongen won a championship, with what was virtually Arena’s team in 1999. But Rongen was the wrong man for D.C. In came Hudson, and he, too, couldn’t get the hang of things -- he lost my faith with his absurd attempt to sign Paul Gascoigne. So maybe things were getting too frivolous. That possibility was scotched by bringing in the dour Peter Nowak, who certainly did seem to take some of the fun out of D.C. United but managed to win a championship in 2004. United has won nothing since (some may count the Open Cup victory in 2008 as “winning something” -- I don’t).
Tom Soehn took over from Nowak and without seeming to do anything clearly wrong, also never seemed to get things sharply right. The fun and now the sparkle and the brio was draining away from D.C.
Onalfo has had the melancholy experience of seeing virtually everything that he has tried go wrong. Signings and departures (particularly at the attacking end of the team), tactics, lineup changes - all have looked inept at best, just plain inexpert at worst.
Onalfo, obviously had to go -- a record of 3-12-3 with nothing but gloom on the horizon is coaching suicide. So Ben Olsen, a faithful D.C. player for so long, gets his first chance as a coach. Is D.C. United doing him any favors by shoving him into the middle of this mess?
Definitely not -- but surely no one is expecting Olsen to turn the D.C. United season around, or even to squeak the team into the playoffs. Just how dire things are was made pretty clear during Olsen’s coaching debut against the New England Revs. His team did not play badly. They probably deserved a tie in a scrappy game with the Revs, but lost by the minimal score -- and the Revs’ lone goal typified the sort of things that happen to a team that is down on its luck.
A Revs free kick in midfield was perfectly delivered by Chris Tierney, right on to the head of Pat Phelan, who made a darting run into the D.C. area and finished with a fine, emphatic header. A lovely goal, but one with D.C. United badly at fault for not paying attention to Phelan.
Except that the goal should never have been scored, because the free kick should not have been given. At least, that is my opinion. Obviously, it was not the opinion of referee Terry Vaughn, whose officiating I respect, nor was it the opinion of Revs broadcaster Brad Feldman, whose work I also respect. So, I am open to correction on this.
Here’s what happened. D.C. United’s Pablo Hernandez took possession of the ball 10 yards inside the D.C. half - but his control was sloppy, and the ball ran away from him. Hernandez gave chase -- the ball was now some two to three yards ahead of him -- in other words, not within playing distance. At this point Phelan came on the scene. His logical move was, surely, to chase the ball and get to it before Hernandez could. But what he did was to step across Hernandez’s path - in other words, moving at right angles to the path of the ball, making no attempt whatever to play it. Inevitably, he collided with Hernandez, and both went down. The ball was not touched by either player. As I watched, expecting a free kick to D.C. United, I was greatly amazed when Vaughn awarded the ball to the Revs.
I went back and watched again, two or three times and could see no possible way that this was a foul by Hernandez. At the end of the game I again revisited the replays. I have now watched the play over 20 times, trying to watch it each time with a different perspective. No dice. It still looks like a clear foul by Phelan. At the very least obstruction -- or “impeding the progress of an opponent” which is defined in the rulebook as “moving into the path of an opponent to obstruct, block, slow down or force a change of direction by an opponent when the ball is not within playing distance of either player.”
For there to be a foul by Hernandez, Phelan would have had to be chasing the ball, ahead of Hernandez -- in which case Hernandez might have been guilty of tripping. But Phelan was categorically not chasing the ball, he was stepping across the path of Hernandez and there was no way for Hernandez to avoid contact. When the players went down, the ball was by now some three yards away -- clearly not within playing distance.
To me it looked like the wrong call. I’ll go further, I think it was a terrible call. But what leaves me in some doubt is that there seemed to be few complaints from the D.C. United players. Hernandez was upset by the call, but that was about it.
So -- if referee Vaughn, or anyone else, can show me why that was a good call, and not the horrendous one that I believe it was, I’m ready to apologize. For now, I’ll stick to my own judgment -- and commiserate with D.C. United and Ben Olsen as they suffer the trials and tribulations of a club in deep trouble.