Alas, poor Nowak. We knew him too well. Perhaps it's just the usual bellyaching that comes when the air is still ripe with the disappointment of a home playoff loss, but I think D.C. United may soon part ways with Coach Peter Nowak. United lost this afternoon, after Taylor Twellman scored four minutes into the game, to push his team, the New England Revolution, into the final. The rest of the game, especially for the next forty-four minutes, the Revs did little else beyond withstanding a furious United attack. Although they had a few near-misses, including some a pair of good shots in the second half, the Revs had only one shot on goal for the game. Yet, that one shot was enough for a 1-0 win, and a berth in the MLS Cup.
It seemed that United played the final forty minutes of the first half in the Revolution's defensive half of the field. The Revs' box was under constant assault. Yet, the United attack lacked any real creativity or understanding, and sorely missed a strong finishing touch. There were a few good chances, but only one or two shots that looked like they might produce a tying goal. Reis, New England's keeper, was generally up to the challenge, and when he was beaten, the Revs' defense was in the right position.
In fact, the most dangerous chance occurred at the other end of the field -- after an inopportune D.C. giveaway, Twellman, the Revolution striker, found himself wide open in the box. Twellman waited for the crossing pass, but missed badly with his shot, volleying his attempt high over the goal.
In truth, United was denied a perfect scoring opportunity late in the first half, when Jaime Moreno sprinted for a loose ball at the edge of the penalty box, and was brought down by a sliding Shalrie Joseph. The referee pointed to a spot outside the box, although from my vantage point (and apparently from the replays I viewed on an overhead screen), the foul occurred inside the box. The United faithful all agreed a penalty kick should have been awarded. As it turned out, this was probably the decisive moment of the game. Gomez' free kick hit the wall with no effect.
In the second half, the United attackers began to show their weariness. Freddy Adu had a nice individual effort early, that really tested Reis -- probably United's best shot of the half. Despite that fine shot, and a strong first half, Adu began to struggle to link up with his teammates. After failing to make a quick return pass that might have led a break down the wing, Adu was replaced by Matias Donnet. This seemed to signal an incomprehensible series of moves, as each of Coach Peter Nowak's substitutions seemed to leave United with a more defensive unit. When Alecko Eskandarian went down, and limped to the sidelines, he was replaced by the large, but very unpolished Rod Dyachenko.
The final straw was replacing Christian Gomez, who had not had a great game, but was still the United player most likely to tally the desperately needed tying goal. Gomez left for Clyde Simms. After the game, I met up with a neighbor who agreed with me that Jamil Walker would have been a better move at that stage of the game. But Walker wasn't even warming up, when the signal went to Simms to remove his yellow pinny, and enter the contest. It seemed that United's much-hyped depth had disappeared.
Substituting Simms for Gomez was probably Nowak's final move as United's coach. His contract is up, and I think his coaching effort will not stand up to close scrutiny. United should have done better. It's hard to be critical of a coach or team, when that team has more points than any other, and gets to the Conference final. And yet, in retrospect, despite all the team accomplished, this was a disappointing season for United.
As good as this United team was through the All-Star break, they were only an average squad since. They were routed by the Chicago Fire, in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup tournament. Though they defeated the Red Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs, they were outplayed in each game. It was the brilliance of Christian Gomez that saved United in each game. Yet, at the end this afternoon, Gomez watched the final minutes from the bench.
Next year will be a big year for United. They will probably have Freddy Adu for one more season , and Jaime Moreno probably has one more great season left in his unequaled MLS career. In addition to the MLS and Open Cup, United are qualified for the intercontinental club Champions League. United can bring honor to its proud tradition with stronger performances in the tournaments, and the MLS playoffs.
The problem today clearly was on the field. Though United controlled the play out of sheer force of will, the players seemed to have little idea how to work together to create truly dangerous chances. It seems to me, when that's the biggest problem, one needs to take a long, hard look at the coaching. I fear that, in order to get more out of a still very talented squad (and to get the most out of the still developing Freddy Adu), United needs a change at the top. I intend no disrespect for all that Nowak has accomplished with United, but United may need a new coach to get back to winning championships.