Unwanted recognition: D.C. United sets MLS record with three-win season

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Chivas USA can be forgiven for their 2005 win total. It was their first year in Major League Soccer. Their expansion brethren, Real Salt Lake, only won five games that season, too. There were a lot of reasons those Goats served eight years in the league’s record books, their win total spending almost a decade as the league’s mark for futility.

As of today, however, that Chivas squad is off the hook, replaced by one of the names at the opposite end of the league’s prestige spectrum. Whereas the Carson-based club as been the most mercurial in the league’s short history, D.C. United has been one of MLS’s most accomplished. But after losing 2-1 to Houston at RFK, the four-time league champions, four-time Supporters’ Shield winners, five-time Eastern Conference champions and three-time Open Cup victors hold the record for fewest wins in a season. Their three wins in 34 games lowers the league’s bar.

[MORE: Houston’s 2-1 win puts Dynamo in playoffs.]

How D.C. got here has been discussed all season, but on the day they made history, it’s worth remembering: They not only made least year’s Eastern Conference final but had plenty of reasons to think it wasn’t a fluke. Players like Bill Hamid, Perry Kitchen, Nick DeLeon and Chris Korb could possibly improve. The defense and attack stood to be healthier, and Ben Olsen would have a valuable year of experience under his still unworn coaching belt.

None of that happened. The youngsters didn’t make progress. Health issues persisted. Olsen struggled to motivate his team or find solutions, and none of the team’s holes were filled. They failed to find a number nine. Perry Kitchen went without a consistent partner in midfield. The defense was still bad. The league’s second worst defense was complemented by the league’s worst attack, the type of perfectly inept storm that’s necessary to set records.

Despite all those failures, the biggest mystery of the season will be the team’s U.S. Open Cup run. Perhaps it says something about the stature and format of the tournament that a team of United’s quality can claim the trophy, but with that honor, the team will be in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League, likely costing a teams like New York, Kansas City, Portland or Real Salt Lake a spot.

It sparks a debate as to how the U.S.’s Champions League spots should be alloted, but it also shows United has some quality that never came out in the regular season. How could a team that claimed a must-win game at Real Salt Lake only summon that performance three times (at most) in their league season?

Those three wins:

  • D.C. United won their second game of the season, claiming a 1-0 victory over visiting Real Salt Lake. United ends the year as one of the few teams that can say their season would have been better had they played RSL more often.
  • On June 22, D.C. claimed another 1-0 win at home, this time over San Jose.  By season’s end, the Earthquakes would reclaim some of their 2012 Supporters’ Shield form, making this another head-scratching result.
  • D.C.’s final win of the year came over visiting Montréal on Aug. 3, a 3-1 explosion that gave United their third win of the season against playoff-caliver opposition. Against Toronto and Chivas USA, D.C. would finish the season 0-3-1.

After a season like this, there are two natural questions: Who’s at fault, and how do you move forward?

source: AP
Ben Olsen just completed his third full season with D.C. United after assuming the head coach’s role in the middle of the 2010 campaign. Despite a season that set a record for fewest regular season wins, Olsen is likely to return to D.C. United for the 2014 season. (Photo: AP Photo.)

The fault largely has to rest with the players, none of whom played to their potential. As much as you’d like to say that’s a coaching issue (and certainly, motivation was a huge problem), there are plenty of players that find a way to transcend their circumstances and perform. Between injury, age, immaturity, regression, or other inexplicable factors, no D.C. players stepped forward this season. Few of their starters had above-average seasons, let alone put themselves in the conversation for a Best XI spot.

Coaching was to a key culprit, too, and if it wasn’t for Ben Olsen’s unique position at D.C. United, he’d surely be gone. Yet, as bad as the 36-year-old boss’s results have been, he’s also considered to have shouldered an undo amount of blame for a front office that misread the situation. Rather than see last year’s team for what it was — a good team with some key, potentially debilitating flaws — they made the mistake of assuming past performance leads to future results.

While assuming the best (while ignoring the worst) is common, good front offices always examine the contributing factors. United’s front office failed to do so, with the likes of Carlos Ruiz, John Thorrington, James Riley and Rafael failing to provide the winter solutions the squad needed. By the time Luis Silva, Conor Doyle, and Jared Jeffrey were brought in, D.C. was already looking toward 2014.

Thankfully, that mid-season injection gives D.C.  a path forward. Add those three to Hamid, DeLeon, and Kitchen, and D.C. has a decent young core, one that gives them clear targets for those precious cap resources. They need better talent in defense and a reliable striking option – acquisitions that may require finding homes for other big salaries. The road back to respectability, however, does not need to be a long one.

If that’s a silver lining, it’s an incredibly thin one, one’s that’s unlikely to distract from the frustration of a long and unexpectedly dour 2013 regular season. The U.S. Open Cup triumph has helped fans deal with the trauma, but as of today, that trauma lives on in the record books. D.C. United’s three-win season will now be synonymous with MLS futility … until the next D.C. United comes along.

USMNT Player Ratings from win over Ecuador

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Gregg Berhalter’s United States men’s national team extended its clean sheet run to 180 minutes under the new coach with a 1-0 defeat of Ecuador in Orlando on Thursday.

[ RECAP: USMNT 1-0 Ecuador ]

The longtime Columbus Crew coach handed notable chances to several MLS mainstays who stood out in January camp, but also re-introduced Christian Pulisic to the fold.

The results were mixed, but the win was deserved as the U.S. did not allow much danger to reach Sean Johnson’s cage.

LINEUPS

Sean Johnson — 6.5 — Had to catch, what, one ball? Still, nice for him to get a clean sheet.

Tim Ream — 7 — A couple of dicey moments, sure, but the man with the captain’s band stood out at left back not just for his assist but his aggression in pressing high up the left flank.

John Brooks — 6.5 — Not much to do, but effective when needed with a win-saving stop. Here’s hope the thigh injury isn’t a notable one. Intelligent and accurate in his passing out of the back.

Aaron Long — 6 — His passing was a bit off early, and that will need to be better at the back of Berhalter’s defense, but overall he was composed and well-drilled.

Tyler Adams — 7.5 — Given he was playing an unusual position with immense responsibility (right), Adams deserves a lot of credit for keeping his motor high over 90 minutes. He only attempted two dribbles, staying in his shoes and venturing wide and forward on occasion. A very promising sign for an ambitious move by Berhalter. That’s a lot of green over there, and green is good —>

Wil Trapp (Off 59′) — 5.5 — He’s not supposed to be the guy who stands out in a game, and should be known for doing the little things, but he’s still not standing out from the pack as someone who should keep Michael Bradley or Tyler Adams from the center of the park.

Weston McKennie (Off 68′) — 5 — Potentially scary injury aside, he will have much better days for the U.S. than this and certainly didn’t show chemistry with Trapp. Second guessing is easy, but flipping McKennie and Adams might’ve been the play.

Paul Arriola (Off 77′) — 6 — An energetic, productive night on the wing takes a hit due to his inability to finish the match’s best scoring chance (even if the save was legit).

Christian Pulisic (Off 62′) — 7 — Not at his sharpest, but still quite lively in producing many American attacks. Had an memorable moment working over Antonio Valencia near the end line.

Jordan Morris (Off 68′) — 6 — Still learning how to be a winger, but a decent and industrious effort for the Seattle Sounders man.

Gyasi Zardes — 7 — It was the goal that did the trick for him over 90 minutes, and it was good to see the Columbus Crew man score a USMNT for the first time since 2016.

Subs

Michael Bradley (On 59′) — 6.5 — Quick decisions and possession-aiding passes with precious few mistakes (See Opta chalkboard from MLSSocccer.com at right).

Sebastian Lletget (On 62′) — 6 — Has to be a bit more careful in his own half, but we’d like to see him get a start against Chile.

Cristian Roldan (On 66′) — 5 — Sloppy with the ball in a short stint.

DeAndre Yedlin (On 66′) — 6 — Busy and ready to produce chances from the right side.

Jonathan Lewis (On 77′) — N/A —

Zardes goal pushes controlling USMNT past Ecuador

AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack
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  • Yanks have not allowed goal in 3 matches under Berhalter
  • Pulisic returns to USMNT set-up
  • MORE: McKennie stretched off
  • Zardes scores deflected winner off Ream feed
  • American control ball, but struggle in final third

Gyasi Zardes scored his seventh international goal and first since the Copa America Centenario as the USMNT handed Ecuador a 1-0 defeat at Orlando City Stadium on Thursday.’s

The win marks the third clean sheet victory in three tries for USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter, who leads the Yanks against Chile on Tuesday.

[ MORE: Player ratings ]

The U.S. came out of the gates flying, connecting passes with their wings and fullbacks sitting very wide to stretch the surface.

When Ecuador did collect the ball, the Yanks pressed very hard and won it back.

Industry and speed was the story of the USMNT game, with Christian Pulisic and Jordan Morris leading the way in forcing the match on Ecuador.

Weston McKennie did some heavy lifting in nice combo play with Pulisic and Gyasi Zardes for a chance that was just missing the finishing touch from Paul Arriola (and got a nice save).

Pulisic was felled by a hard foul just inside the Ecuador half in the 55th minute, but carried on and Paul Arriola took a yellow for fouling Jefferson Orejuela in response.

Michael Bradley entered the match for Trapp in the 59th minute, and Pulisic exited for Sebastian Lletget three minutes later.

McKennie then suffered a painful ankle injury and eventually accepted stretcher help to get to the bench.

Zardes put the U.S. ahead when his powerful strike from atop the 18 took a huge deflection off the calf of Robert Arboleda and looped over the head of a flailing Alexander Dominguez.

The play began when Sebastian Lletget’s pressing pushed a poor Ecuadorian clearance to USMNT left back Tim Ream, who spotted Zardes in the middle of the Ecuador half.

USMNT, Schalke mid McKennie stretchered off with ankle injury

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Schalke and USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie limped off the pitch during the second half of a friendly against Ecuador on Thursday in Florida.

McKennie appeared to twist his ankle shortly after being called for a foul in the match, which stood 0-0 at the time.

[ MORE: Hazard, Real, and the back-up plan ]

He left the match with trainer help, and was eventually carted to the bench while seated on a stretcher.

A key piece of the program’s future, the 20-year-old midfielder has been a utility knife in the Bundesliga, playing everywhere from right back to left mid.

Only six players have played more league minutes for Schalke than McKennie, who earned his eighth cap on Thursday.

Making the case: Raheem Sterling as PL Player of the Year

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Even a year ago, I wouldn’t have imagined someone making this case in a rational manner any time soon.

I especially didn’t think it would be me.

But as the Premier League takes a deep breath ahead of the stretch run, I’m going to have to say it.

[ MORE: JPW ranks the candidates ]

Raheem Sterling has been the best attacking player in the Premier League this season, and quite possibly the best player period.

Whether he earns the nod over defender Virgil Van Dijk is another story altogether, as it will probably comes down to wins and losses and one or two titles, but consider how deadly, consistent, and deadly consistent Sterling has been since the start of the season.

Of the four Premier League players who’ve accounted for some combination of 24 goals and assists, Sterling gets the least amount of positive publicity. Eden Hazard has largely been the Chelsea attack, Sergio Aguero has tied the PL hat trick record, and Mohamed Salah is riding his 2017-18 season through a remarkable cold snap of form.

But there’s Sterling, with 15 goals and nine assists in the second-fewest minutes of the bunch (Aguero).

How about these numbers — via WhoScored.com — in 2,149 league minutes?

Sterling is also averaging a tackle and .6 interceptions per match, the best of the bunch, while committed the fewest bad touches per game (most remarkable considering his second touch haunted him for several seasons).

A concession: For what it’s worth given the above stats, Hazard is easily in second of the bunch if not competing directly with Sterling. But Sterling hasn’t been a part of underachieving teams for three different managers, so we’ll abide.

There are two things going against Sterling, neither of which are his fault. The first is that Man City’s dominance of last season and run back into a title right this season has people imagining that the feast of talent at the Etihad Stadium makes numbers an afterthought; That is to say that Sterling, Aguero, and the Silvas (not to mention Leroy Sane) aren’t producing much more than their theoretical replacements.

And maybe there’s something to that, but here’s how important Sterling’s production has been to City.

In Premier League matches in which Sterling neither scored, assisted, nor drew a penalty, City has four wins, two draws, and four losses. When he has, that mark is 17-0 (He sat out wins over Huddersfield Town, Burnley, and Watford to complete Man City’s 24W-2D-4L record).

Aguero, for his part, racked up nine of his goals in three matches. I’m not here to hat trick shame, but Sterling feels a less replaceable part of Pep’s team.

The second thing going against Sterling is a bit more nefarious, linked to articles and conceptions about his gun tattoo or hairstyles. This part, hopefully, doesn’t require us to refute it.

Van Dijk has been phenomenal, and as a longtime defender admirer — those who can’t do it, love those who do it well — I’d be thrilled to see him join N'Golo Kante in non-scorers to claim such an honor.

But VVD was also on the scene for a moment that encapsulates what Sterling has become to City’s attack. He’s arguably been this season’s Leroy Sane, and coincidentally cues up the German with this incisive pass from well outside his office for the January winner against Liverpool.