For purely soccer reasons, I would like to see D.C. United doing well. Under the guidance of Kevin Payne, this is a club that has always played, at any rate always tried to play, a skill-based version of soccer.
For its first three years, coached by Bruce Arena, it excelled - largely because of the influence of one player, Marco Etcheverry. The stylistic superiority continued for a few years after that, under Thomas Rongen, Ray Hudson and Peter Nowak, but it was clearly slipping.
Now, it has disappeared, which is greatly to be regretted -- not least because no other MLS club has stepped up to take over the mantle of “most admired”: that is, admittedly, a mantle that I have bestowed - but why not, given that MLS seems to be not the least bit interested in giving out awards for good soccer?
I’ll modify that criticism -- I think that Real Salt Lake, after three years in John Ellinger’s stylistic wastelands, now plays good, skillful soccer under Jason Kreis. Even better, it has been rewarded for its devotion to skill by winning last year’s MLS cup.
D.C. United, instead, has labored painfully on, rudderless, clueless and winless. Yesterday, D.C. brought its eight-game winless streak to an end with a 2-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union. A win is a win, for sure, but a home win against a team with a record almost as bad as D.C.’s own is hardly anything to crow about.
D.C. did look better than they have in recent games, but it has still a long way to go before they resemble the teams of the late 1990s. Both of D.C.’s goals came from Danny Allsopp, who does not really fit my definition of a player at all. His passing and his ball control are poor, and his goal-scoring so far has been almost nonexistent. But yesterday he was gifted a free shot on goal by an awful mis-kick from Union defender Danny Califf -- and Allsopp responded perfectly to score. Later, he ran on to Andy Najar’s pass, unchallenged, to score a confident second. Allsopp’s other contributions to the game were barely visible, but I’m not about to be hard on a player whose only skill seems to be to score when the chances come - in these days of minimal scoring, that is a talent to be treasured. If only Allsopp could display it more frequently.
The player who attracts the eye immediately is the 17-year-old Honduran Andy Najar, frisky and speedy on the right wing, a handful for most defenders. Santino Quaranta is, sadly, yet another of the USA’s teen whiz kids who fail to live up to their initial promise. Actually, that’s unfair to Quaranta -- the promise is not his fault, it is the creation of coaches and journalists and (in the case of Freddy Adu, of sponsors and MLS league officials). Quaranta is a good player, nothing more -- and disappointing only to those who predicted he would be better, and who now feel that he has let them down.
D.C.’s designated player, the Montenegrin Branko Boskovic, is an enigmatic presence -- he looks the part, he has some classy moves, but the sum of his various skills does not amount to very much at the moment. He had very little influence on this game.
For a team struggling desperately to win even one game, it is no doubt asking too much to expect flowing soccer. I’m not sure why that should be, but it seems to be the accepted wisdom that heightened commitment and increased work-rate - hardly specific soccer qualities - are what are needed.
D.C. certainly got work-rate yesterday, from Pablo Hernandez up front, and from Clyde Simms, Julius James, and Dejan Jakovic -- but those last three players are never going to impart any style to the team.
For the moment, then, D.C. United is responding in the way of its interim coach Ben Olsen, by trying harder -- and, maybe by trying longer, for D.C. United managed to come out of this game without giving away any late goals, something that has cost them dearly several times this season.
To repeat, I’d like to see D.C. back to its stylish best -- and, frankly, it would be good to see Ben Olsen do well, for he has been put in the unenviable position of interim coach on a poor team - an appointment he could hardly turn down, but one that might well work against him.
Those are my two reasons, one soccer, and one rather sentimental, for wishing D.C. United well. Otherwise, it is just another MLS club. On one front, in fact, I find D.C. United almost intolerable - and that is when their television commentators, Dave Johnson and Thomas Rongen get going.
Heavens, what a cacophony! Johnson is always super-hype, which is maybe OK for the play-by-play guy - but when Rongen joins in (trying, evidently to sound like Andy Gray -- though why anyone would want to sound like Andy Gray is beyond explanation), both of them talking a mile a minute, both of them breaking each other up with feeble in-jokes ... but above all, both being almost obnoxiously pro-D.C. United, it all gets beyond endurance.
Rongen is one of those analysts -- they’re invariably coaches -- who have a 10-page explanation for everything that happens on the field, from a busted play to a player re-tying his laces.
On he waffles, sprinkling everything with schmaltzy tales of what great guys all the D.C. United team are and how splendidly they are playing right now ... until you feel that, really, Barcelona were never as good as this.
This insistence on seeing everything through D.C. United spectacles inevitably leads to errors of judgment -- as when Pablo Hernandez had the ball in the net but was called offside, and Rongen, even when looking at the replay called it a “very, very tight” decision. But Hernandez was clearly offside, as Rongen had to admit a little later. That sort of bias will happen when Rongen talks of D.C. United as “We”.
More irritating to me is Rongen’s insistence on using the word “football” - this is a guy who has lived in the USA for over 30 years, mind you. And then he and Johnson start yakking about “clean sheets,” a particularly silly phrase, much inferior to the American shutout. Why use it?
So I listen to Rongen refusing to use American terms, unable to recognize a clear offside call, dishing out praise for tactical fouls, talking of a ball “picking up pace” when it deflects off a player, and welcoming the heavy rain “as it makes for a better game, I feel like I’m in Europe right now” ... and I have to remind myself that I’m listening to a senior United States Soccer Federation employee, the coach of the U.S. under-20 men’s national team. Food for thought, there.
The commentary I can do without. But if the 2-0 win marks the beginning of a revival for D.C. United, I shall feel pleased, for MLS needs -- in addition to good soccer -- history and tradition, and it would be great to see D.C. recapture some its former glory.