Somewhere down in the mid-summer recesses of this blog, I dubbed DC United the best team in Major League Soccer (MLS). Just to suggest, at least, that I’m not a lazy sack, I tried to find that post…and discovered there are several. The first time it happened came after their August 22 win over Red Bull New York, but the affirmation of that opinion grew and grew. By the time I wrote the post behind that second “grew,” I was preoccupied with figuring out not so much who could stop them, but where; between winning Eastern Conference title and how strong they were at home, the conference semifinals seemed the place to stop them.
And, of course, that’s precisely what happened: the DC defense’s penchant for getting flustered as virgins on their first date let in Chicago’s forwards for a pair of goals that were easy as they were well-taken and lethal. Thus it was the same story for the past two seasons: DC gets the Supporters’ Shield, an award that, at this point, everyone at least acknowledges before dubbing the MLS Cup-winning Houston Dynamo as league champions. Picking through the comments of a post-loss post (probably on the incomparable DCenters), the refrain that the Supporters’ Shield wasn’t enough repeated pretty often.
So what’s the story for DC United’s 2007? They played more meaningful games than any team but the Houston Dynamo. They won a bunch of them, too, all except the three semifinals they reached (e.g. conference, CONCACAF Champions Cup, and Superliga; they lost the last one, incredibly, to the Los Angeles Galaxy). So, again, what is that? “Really good, but not good enough”? A “beautiful failure”? Or is it just a failure?
Hard as that is to say where DC is concerned, I’m going with just plain failure. There’s the team’s tradition, if nothing else. Yeah, there’s the Supporters’ Shield; yeah, there’s leading the league in goals scored; yeah, there’s a massive rock-star streak to the top in the middle of the summer. But here’s why it’s a failure: DC United had a problem in 2006 – namely, a dodgy defense – and everyone knew about it. 2007 rolls around and they get bit by the exact…same…problem? That’s failure. They did try during the season at least – assuming the trade for Greg Vanney more than simply getting rid of Facundo “Mr. Dicey” Erpen – but this problem runs too deep for Band-Aids.
The thing with DC’s defensive woes is that they’re not confined to that third of the field. The anxiety only starts in back, but when it really hits, it creeps forward from there. Even if you’ve played the game at the amateur level, you know the difference in how you play, how willing you are to take chances, when you trust the players around you – and, more to the point, behind you. Now that could be me reading my experiences into DC’s games, but given the way things played out this year and last, that’s an avenue worth exploring.
Still, any DC fans and players who need cheering should take the time to look at their team’s schedule; just gaze at all those happy “W’s” that appear, because it’s a truckload. Count them up and you’ll see your team sent you home with something to smile about at least 21 times in 2007. That’s a hell of a lot more than most teams’ fans get. And you’ve got those four trophies to cuddle as well, so, yeah, stop complaining dammit. (Sorry. Mood-swing again.)
In all seriousness, DC is a damn good team. If they’re not the best – and I no longer think they are because they lack Houston’s balance – they’re a close second. DC fans have a lot about which to be happy. But the team absolutely must address the problems in the back before 2008. And I’ll just throw this out there: picking up Juan Sebastian Veron may seem really neat, but he ain’t gonna to fix the problem that most needs fixin’.
– It’s tempting to say DC’s entire season was a streak. In precise terms, they picked up a three-game, league-play winning streak here (late May) and a four-game winning streak there (late August/early September), but they were just plain good for large stretches.
– Unfortunately, they bookended their generally good form with a lousy start (three straight losses) and, worse, a feeble ending (0-1-2 in October for league play).
What Went Right
– The list shows above: Supporters’ Shield – and, through that, a place in next year’s CONCACAF Champions Cup…again…dammit. They topped the scoring stats, which is cool, ‘cause who doesn’t like seeing their team score? Even that dodgy defense, considered over the whole season, did well, tying for third in the “Stingy Stakes” with (eww!) the Colorado Rapids.
– Tom Soehn did himself pretty proud in his first year as head coach. That’s encouraging.
– Signing Luciano Emilio paid off to the tune of having the first 20-goal goal-scorer in lord knows how long (yeah, yeah, I know a lot of you know this too).
– Clyde Simms really stepped it up this year.
– I feel like the horse I’m beating is turning to ash, but, yeah, the periodic panics in defense killed them.
– Josh Gros’ concussion thing was kind of a bummer.
– Fortunate as DC fans have been down the years, I don’t envy them their 2007 (in spite of the many jabs above). To have entirely reasonable hopes of success dashed three times in one year just has to suck. Of all of them, I think the Superliga thing would have pissed me off the most.
Key Men (as in the Ones You Want Back)
Luciano Emilio: No-brainer.
Cylde Simms: Seems like an up-and-comer from where I sit.
Christian Gomez: Assuming they can keep him without breaking the bank; he’s not quite worth that much. After 2006, on the other hand…
Ben Olsen: Yeah, he’s a prima donna around the refs, but he seems like a great locker room guy – and there’s that suddenly hot scoring record to consider.
Anyone Who Ought to Leave
Jaime Moreno: Yep, I said it. For the record, I still count him the best All-Time MLS player. Signs of the magic remain, as does the desire, but the magic is going away. Let him pick up a big payday and let everyone move on.
The Defense: Blow it up. Start fresh as possible.
What They’re Needin’
– Most fundamentally, someone to organize that defense. A couple new players are probably required, but the team could avoid the “blowing up” recommended above if they could find a player or two to organize things.
– On a related point, someone to push Troy Perkins for ‘keeper is required. Put another way, I view Perkins as a big part of the problem. Not only is he good for an annual gaffe or three (or four), he’s virtually mute back there. On the several occasions DC’s defenders left him for dead (see: Semifinal, Eastern Conference) Perkins just kind of sulked, when a good old-fashioned ass-ripping was in order. To get all ruthless about it, if I could find an upgrade for Perkins, I’d trade him in a heartbeat.
– The point is Perkins could be part of the solution for the defense, but he’s just another part of the problem. There is no leadership back there.
– Replacing Moreno is pretty important – even if he doesn’t leave, the time to groom a replacement is now. I’ve heard some talk – mainly inspired by Veron’s potential arrival – of Gomez slipping into the forward role (thought I knew where I saw this, but I don’t), but I’ll just say I’m dubious on that one for the same reasons I’m not always wild about Landon Donovan as a forward.
– There’s also Gros’ motor to replace on the right flank.