When D.C. United took on the New York Red Bulls at RFK last week, it looked like a completely reversed set of squads from the first leg of this year’s Atlantic Cup competition. It was the most attractive soccer D.C. have played since at least the second leg of the 2014 MLS Cup Playoffs against the New York Red Bulls. The run of play was fluid and D.C. were consistently attacking the Red Bulls defense with an offense that is just now fully coming online with the return of Luis Silva two weeks ago (and Fabian Espindola and Markus Halsti scheduled to return over the course of the next month).
Last week’s match proved that even without the top choice strikers, United are contenders in the Eastern Conference; no one knows what this team will look like offensively once all the pieces return and the true D.C. United first team lines up sometime in May. D.C. was able to outplay the Red Bulls for nearly 70 minutes, and could have scored on several other occasions with Chris Rolfe’s inspired open-field play and two powerful Luis Silva free kicks at the top of the Red Bulls penalty box.
Ultimately, two mistakes cost United points on the day in what was an otherwise well-played match. “It’s two-fold. Obviously there’s disappointment in not getting the result we wanted tonight, but it was a good night. I mean overall I thought it was a step forward for us, ironically. We gotta learn from some of the mistakes we made that cost us the points,” D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen said after the match. “But if we can take a large chunk of that game and build off it, I think we’re in good shape. There’s a lot more good than bad in that game, and it’s probably the best we played this year from a soccer standpoint and a mentality,” he said.
Regarding Bill Hamid’s performance, including the game-tying goal, Olsen was equally upbeat: “It’s easy to say he’s gotta swallow that up, but that ball has a little dip and it’s not the easiest ball. But Bill can deal with that; he’s dealt with that before, and he’ll be the first one to raise his hand that he could’ve done better. But if I’m keeping tabs, Bill’s saved us much more than he’s cost us.”
The match in Harrison, NJ saw D.C. completely outwitted and outmatched by Jesse Marsch’s compact and high pressing midfield built around Sacha Kljestan and Dax McCarty. In that match, United’s midfield complete passing sequences in the midfield and final third; this allowed New York to cross the ball into the D.C. United box 28 times over the course of the match to D.C.’s 14.
The scoreline was less kind than United’s general level of play in the second half, with a missed penalty kick by Chris Pontius and a blocked shot off the boot of Nick DeLeon in each half; Chris Rolfe saw three of his shots saved by Luis Robles, who has had a miraculous season for the Red Bulls so far. That night in Harrison, the only loss for United in the young Major League Soccer season, the first half performance lacked a level of effort uncharacteristic of recent regular season play. While they made improvements in the second half, it only took two lapses in central defense for the Red Bulls to pull away with three points in the first leg of the 2015 Atlantic Cup.
Statistically, the match should have ended much more closely than it did, with D.C. United keeping pace with New York in shots on target (NYR 5-7 DC), shots off target (5-5), completed passes (477-446), passing accuracy (77%-72%), possession (52.3%-44.7%), and even duels won (56-57). Still, the first half performance continued a worrying trend for United that started against the Red Bulls in the playoffs and continued against Alajuelense in the CONCACAF Champions League: the first leg performance digs the team into a troubling hole.
The most striking change from the match in Harrison was Perry Kitchen, who had a career night in a performance that likely earned him the ensuing call up to the USMNT camp ahead of a 2-0 victory over Mexico in San Antonio, TX. Kitchen netted a goal in each half to give D.C. a two-goal lead before the ensuing Red Bulls comeback. Olsen kept it simple in his praise of the performance, “Take the goals out of it: his composure on the ball tonight was much better…the way he moved around. I was really pleased with his performance.” If D.C. United can maintain the level of play they showed in those first 70 minutes at RFK, it’s entirely possible that last season’s top-of-the-conference finish not be a peak, but a harbinger of things to come. Meanwhile Kitchen continued his good week, coming on in the 63rd minute for an injured Kyle Beckerman; he was able to successfully fill Beckerman’s role and help maintain the clean sheet for the United States as they went on to win 2-0, even hitting an impressive shot in his early minutes on the field.