By Ridge Mahoney
Four-time MLS Cup champion D.C. United is trying to break a four-year playoff drought and despite problems in several areas, there's sufficient promise and potential to believe this feat can be accomplished in 2012.
If the first month of the MLS season is any indicator, the Eastern Conference will feature Sporting Kansas City and Houston in the top two slots, and who knows after that.
Last year, Philly, New York and Columbus claimed the next three slots, and despite the Union’s rough start and New York’s laughable excuse for a back line, the conference is muddled enough that those teams could re-qualify for the postseason. The Crew, too, has realistic hopes, though putting the entire goalkeeping burden on Andy Gruenebaum – with Will Hesmer sidelined for six months recovering from microfracture surgery on his right hip – may stretch him too far.
But my sleeper pick to slip into the postseason is D.C. United, and I first got this notion about two months ago, not in the wake of a 2-1 comeback victory over New England Saturday night at Gillette Stadium that ran its unbeaten streak to four in a row. There are myriad problems with D.C, that’s for certain, yet it has strengths that not many conference foes can match.
To start with the negative, Designated Player Branko Boskovic has yet to live up to the hallowed No. 10 role bestowed upon him by Coach Ben Olsen and D.C. management. He managed to play only four games in 2011, and thus has to be given more time to fully recover from the torn ACL and hairline fracture of the left knee he suffered about a year ago.
Such comparisons may be blatantly unfair, yet the miniscule menace when Boskovic is on the ball as compared to that presented by Dwayne De Rosario or Chris Pontius or even Andy Najar is glaring. United generated 22 shots in beating the Revs without Boskovic and had to chase the game after falling behind in the sixth minute. Najar also sat out the game, with Olsen perhaps looking forward to a thick run of schedule against Montreal Wednesday, New York Saturday, and Houston a week later. That stretch of games will determine just how good D.C. is at this point of the season.
Moving on to DP No. 2, striker Hamdi Salihi, he’s started five of six games and taken 12 shots while putting four on target. Still learning his teammates and the league, he’s been caught making the wrong run or mis-reading a pass. His intrinsic ability, however, doesn’t seem to be anything special. Yet if he can become one of those strikers who doesn’t do much in the box but score, that will be plenty. Still, when a journeyman like Maicon Santos often outshines him, there’s cause for concern.
Prior to the four-game unbeaten run, United crumbled against the Galaxy, 3-1, at Home Depot Center. Nobody looked capable of containing Robbie Keane and while the Irish international will most likely make a lot of opponents look ordinary this season, the ease with which he skipped past every member of the back line at various times in the match emphasized how much D.C. depends on defensive cohesion and denial of space.
Emiliano Dudar has looked the most secure of the D.C. defenders in his limited time (315 minutes) on the field. He provides a toughness that the more skilled Dejan Jakovic can’t supply, and is absolutely critical in light of the two young keepers, Joe Willis (23) and Bill Hamid (21), D.C. is going with in 2012. Shutting out Seattle and Vancouver in the four-game streak offers hope that even with youth in goal United can still crank out zeroes.
Dwayne De Rosario has yet to score this season, yet once again he conjured up an intoxicating mixture of the spectacular and audacious to set up a goal. He scissor-kicked a volley at goal and Santos’ header re-directed it into the net to tie up the Revs, 1-1, in the 19th minute. Pontius – a bit peeved he didn’t start – got a late winner two minutes after coming on as a sub by cutting inside from the left and whipping a shot inside the far post. If he can stay healthy for a full season, he'll take his place among the most skilled and dangerous U.S. attackers in MLS.
The attacking array of De Rosario, Najar, Santos, Pontius, veteran Josh Wolff, and electrifying rookie Nick De Leon may not be the league’s best, but there’s both variety and quality available.
I have to say not many offensive rookies have impressed me in recent years as much as De Leon. He’s not only daring and strong and incredibly fast, he’s got more than a clue of what to do. He set up the winner for Pontius by winning a duel to head a bouncing ball to his teammate, and then raced forward into the box just in case a return pass or rebound might be on the way. He’ll need to improve and adjust as the league gets to know him but so far, so very good.
Midfield is anchored by Perry Kitchen. Circumstances required him to play a lot in the back line during his rookie season rather than his best spot in front of the back four, and while president Kevin Payne is never shy about praising his players, he’s not alone in his high regard for this one.
“His best qualities are the ones you don’t necessarily see when you’re watching the game,” says Payne of Kitchen. “His professionalism is unbelievable for a kid his age, and so are his focus, his mentality, and his leadership qualities. He’s going to be a big-time player for us for a long time to come.”
There’s lots of ground to make up before D.C. can lure back the disgruntled fans who’ve abandoned their team by the thousands, and no doubt a few decisions by the front office and Coach Olsen will trigger considerable angst. But there’s more than a smidgen of sense that after several barren seasons rickety, ramshackle RFK is regaining its rock’em, sock’em mojo.