MLS needs for D.C. United to recapture its old glory

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.

11 comments about "MLS needs for D.C. United to recapture its old glory".
  1. Eric R., August 23, 2010 at 8:54 a.m.

    So is this article about DCU or sports commentators?

    I agree that the commentary is poor, but the US doesn't have anywhere near as many commentators who know the game as we do guys who know NFL or baseball. That said, what do you want from commentators anyway? In every sport I've seen, the home team's local color analysts and play-by-play dudes are always homers.

    I agreed with the stuff about DCU. I'm not a big Allsopp fan dispite him putting 2 away yesterday. I can't figure out where he disappears to most games for 20 minutes at a time. But there's chemistry between him and Najar (Najar and anyone who he can cross to the the box really) and that's a good thing.

  2. Ted Westervelt, August 23, 2010 at 9:46 a.m.

    US Club Soccer needs DC United to capture old glory. Unfortunately an argument can be made that our cloistered first div, MLS, needs to fold them in order to rake in another franchise fee - lifeblood of the league. All because prissy supporters, and cost slashing MLS front office want a stadium that fits stunted popularity growth of leauge. As for commentators: Does Mario Batali write about Applebees?

  3. marc meijer, August 23, 2010 at 11:14 a.m.

    Paul, Nearly every article of yours that I decided to read has been negative towards soccer or the people involved in it. This article goes so far as attacking the commentator of DCU. I have wondered if you are a former player speaking from experience, or just another Boob who watched soccer and decided to become an "Expert".
    It is disappointing that one of the issues this country has with the growth of soccer is writers like you. Tell me something positive about soccer in the US. I'm not looking for rainbows and pink candy gardens. You are speaking to a wide variety of readers, including, those new to the sport. Cynicism has its place for sure, but don't color their new found enthusiasm for this sport black.

  4. beautiful game, August 23, 2010 at 12:44 p.m.

    Commentators...every single professional sport on TV has a bunch of chit-chatters...why do we have two commentators behind the mike having a no-substance conversation. These motormouths have replaced icons like Vince Scully, Jack Whittacker, Red Barber et al who gave the respected game breathing room, while the new generation suffocates the competition to the nth degree. I've listened to many MLS commentators (ex-MLS players in particular) and except for a few of them, they are winded and perform a disservice to futbol and agony to the for Santino Quaranta, his biggest fault is decision-making; he's a split second late or early in most cases, which places him in a pool of MLS mediocrity.

  5. Miguel Dedo, August 23, 2010 at 1:25 p.m.

    The "commentary" of Johnson and Rongen is easy to deal with; I turn off the sound.
    I regret however that the picture our local network, Comcast, provides is hardly better than the commentary. WAY too many changes of camera to be able to keep up with the flow of play, a fascination for showing fat guys in the stands without shirts, particularly those beating on drums, many long close-ups of the player who has just played the ball away; on every corner kick at least four changes of camera, getting to the area in front of the goal a second or two after the ball.
    Often I turn off the picture as well as the sound, its called reading a book.

  6. anthony melo, August 23, 2010 at 1:40 p.m.

    It seems that every single one of your articles talks about commentators.
    Being Portuguese-American, I use a numerous amount of terms for the same thing. sometimes i use the word shutout, while other times i say clean sheet. sometimes i call it football, sometimes i call it soccer. I dislike your negativity, because you should be praising the good things that are happening in the growth of US Soccer. Not the "lack of technicality and of skill"

  7. Sue Gier, August 23, 2010 at 3:03 p.m.

    I absolutely detest listening to Thomas Rongen--bring back John Harkes!

  8. christopher cipperly, August 23, 2010 at 3:35 p.m.

    I'm a DC United season ticket holder and I have to admit that DC United is almost unwatchable with the exception of Najar. Yesterdays game was a pretty dismal exhibition between two poor teams. United's performance is effecting attendance spectacularly this season. Philadelphia had a nice group of followers at DC yesterday. Is it just possible that the MLS has decided that DC without some sort of stadium deal is a marginal investment for the league.

  9. Loren C. Klein, August 23, 2010 at 8:03 p.m.

    Saying that MLS needs DC United back at the top is a bit like saying that the English Premier League needs Preston North End back at the top of the table--in other words completely clueless.
    DC United won all but one of those titles at a time when they were the only club who had a clue about how to run a team. When everyone else figured it out, the DC United front office decided to rest on its laurels and buy the hype of "Tradition" (Since when is 10 years sufficient time to create "tradition in professional sports?) whilst the rest of the league zoomed past them. Now they're just a team in an antiquated stadium whose only pull is the fact that the seats are so rickety you can bounce on them.

  10. Kevin Leahy, August 23, 2010 at 8:44 p.m.

    It has not been very much fun to watch D.C. United. I think that maybe Santino has had too much coaching. I hope they don't stop Andy Najar from taking players on one v. one. He picks his spots well and is really the only one that has me stirring in my seat. Etcheverry was fun, but had a nasty streak in him sometimes. A young Jaime Moreno was just as thrilling! Rongen has never done anything for me as a coach or an analyst. You have to question the scouting that went in to the new additions for this year. It is a team with a great deal of room for improvement!!

  11. beautiful game, August 24, 2010 at 11:27 p.m.

    Bring back Harkes!!??...he's on ESPN doing his winded imitation of chit-chatting with his partner...Harkes has nothing of substance to say and never has.

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