Saturday, September 09, 2006

D.C. United: The Slide Continues -- It was a tale of two halves, tonight at RFK, as D.C. United lost a halftime lead and had to settle for a 1-1 draw against Real Salt Lake. United entered the game severely short-handed. Four starters, including likely league MVP Christian Gomez, were suspended for the game because of accumulated yellow cards. A fifth starter, star striker Jaime Moreno, was recovering from a knee injury. Watching Moreno, it was clear he was not match fit -- he may have been in the lineup only because of the suspensions to Gomez and Alecko Eskandarian. In their places were three first-time starters: Rod Dyachenko, Matias Donnet and Stephen deRoux.

So, it fell to the kid, the superstar-in-waiting, Freddy Adu. From my seat in Section 312, I couldn't tell you whether Coach Peter Nowak personally challenged Adu to step up his game, but Freddy delivered his finest half of football (oops, I mean soccer), since turning professional as the child prodigy. Adu seemed to be everywhere on the field. He was consistently dangerous -- on his own account and setting up his teammates. At one point, Adu picked up a loose ball, and threaded the ball through to Moreno in front of the goal. It appeared a goal was almost certain, but Moreno took the pass awkwardly, tripping over the ball. As the half drew to a close, it seemed Adu's hard work would go unrewarded.

Just before halftime, the United faithful were treated to the kind of magical play they have been awaiting since the teenaged Adu first arrived with oh-so-much hype. Adu fought off a hard tackle and drew the foul, just beyond the top of the box. Normally, the honors for this direct free kick would have gone to Gomez, but this was hardly a normal night. Up stepped Freddy Adu, mighty mite Freddy Adu...and Freddy rose to the occasion with a superbly taken kick, over the wall and neatly tucked inside the corner post. With that kick, Adu served notice that he is edging ever closer to realizing his boundless potential. While the large pro-United crowd lustily roared its approval, United walked off to the locker room, holding a 1-0 lead.

For the first ten minutes of the second half, United tried to keep the pressure on. Rod Dyachenko, making his first MLS start, with much praise from Coach Nowak seemed lost and immobile through most of the first half, but he woke up with a pair of dangerous runs. The real revelation, though, was the previously unheralded local boy making good, Stephen deRoux, who used his blistering pace to give the RSL defense fits throughout the first half and early part of the second half. The newest addition to United’s roster, Argentinian Matias Donnet also turned in some nifty plays, early on, setting up two great scoring chances, but he was subbed out during the second half.

As suddenly as D.C. had struck for its lead in the first half, the life seemed to drain out of United and the run of play suddenly turned in RSL's favor. RSL hadn't really challenged United goalkeeper Nick Rimando, who was making his first start of the MLS season [after All-Star keeper Troy Perkins turned in two rough outings in his last three games]. In the 55th minute, Rimando had to make two sparkling saves. First, Rimando parried a shot by all-time league-leading scorer Jason Kreis on a near post attempt. Off the ensuing corner kick, Rimando was called upon to make a spectacular one-handed diving save, as fine as you will ever see, laying out to the far post to rob Mehdi Ballouchy of the certain tying goal.

For all his brilliance on those plays, it was an apparent misplay by Rimando that led to RSL's tying goal, ten minutes later. When the United defense was thoroughly beaten on a run by RSL's Jeff Cunningham that took him wide of the goal, to Rimando's left, the United goalkeeper took a huge risk in coming out to challenge RSL's Jeff Cunningham along the goal line. With Rimando ranging so far from goal, and helplessly out of position, it was almost child's play for Cunningham to slot a pass to Chris Klein, who easily tallied the tying goal into a practically undefended net.

United's coach Nowak struggled to find an answer over the remainder of the game. For much of the second half, United was disorganized on defense and ineffective in its attack. Real Salt Lake seemed more than content to settle for a tie on the road, against the team that still sits atop the league standings. United made several substitutions but never found the winning combination. Facundo Erpen hit the post with one try in the 71st minute, but that was as close as D.C. came, until the game's waning moments.

It almost seemed that Nowak was throwing in the towel, when he substituted for Ben Olsen, in the 81st minute. Since suffering a disabling ankle injury years ago, Olsen has lost almost all of his speed, agility and much of his once potent skills. Yet, he can still carry United at times, with an indomitable will to win. Olsen seemed to be the engine in United's offense at this point, but Coach Nowak apparently had seen enough of Olsen's near-misses, as he tried to work combinations with the speedier Adu, Clyde Simms and Jamil Walker.

Into the game, came another rookie, Matt Nickel, the 12th pick in last year's supplemental draft. This was Nickel's second appearance his year, but he did not give the appearance of a clueless, nervous novice. Instead, he played with intention and skill, and he created an excellent opportunity for himself in the final minute of stoppage time. Nickel skillfully controlled a pass over the top and then executed a strong turn and shoot maneuver, but put the shot over the crossbar -- the last scoring attempt by either team. A few minutes before, Nickel nearly had an assist, when he set up Clyde Simms for a blast that was saved by former United keeper, Scott Garlick.

Adding injury to insult, D.C.'s Jaime Moreno went down in stoppage time, apparently aggravating the left knee injury that kept him out of Wednesday's game.

So, United continues its dreary run that began when they played RSL in Utah one month ago. They defeated Chivas USA last week, but they haven't turned in a convincing effort in some time. For Adu, this was probably his strongest overall effort of the year. He certainly did not leave anything in the tank, as he collapsed to the ground with the final whistle.

The only significant criticism I can offer of Adu is that he continues to be a disaster taking corner kicks. This is the one part of his game that needs huge improvement. His brilliant free kick showed he certainly can kick the ball skillfully, putting it where he wants, with decent velocity. If he can channel that talent and make himself a dangerous corner kick taker, Adu will become indispensable.

Right now, that is an element that is missing from his game, and it is also absent from D.C.'s attack. United has scored some memorable free kick goals this year, with Adu's tonight being the finest. If they can become as dangerous on corner kicks, they will be able to ride out the unevenness in their attack that they are suffering through right now.

Meanwhile, United's faithful continue to wonder when the team will pull out its tailspin. Perhaps the question may soon become not "when," but "if" United will pull out of this slide. In his article for the Washington Post, Steven Goff protrays Coach Nowak and his players as very satisfied with the play of their patchwork lineup, even if they were disappointed by the result. Ben Olsen says the team is "back to dominating and playing the way we want to play."

We will have to wait and see. United's next game is Wednesday, against the New England Revolution. After tonight's strong performances from unlikely places, Coach Nowak may have some interesting choices to make.

Tomorrow, or the next day, I hope to post a blog entry on the weekend's matches in the E.P.L. So far, the most noteworthy performance was turned in by American Brad Friedel, who saved two second half penalty kicks, and added a terrific kick save on a point blank attempt in the final minute, for good measure -- to preserve a scoreless draw for Blackburn, against Tottenham.

When I watch Freidel play, I sort of cringe, thinking about Alexei Lalas' idiotic statement, during the World Cup, that Kasey Keller was the best goalie in the world. I like Kasey Keller, but he's hardly the best. He's not even the best American goalie. If someone said that Brad Friedel was the best goalie in the world, I might be inclined to agree. When I watch him play, I also wonder if he could've made a difference for the U.S.A. in Germany this summer. I understand that he probably didn't want to tarnish the memory of what he'd accomplished in 2002, but I wish he'd been willing to take the chance and give it the old college try one more time.

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